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Why gig work is so hard to regulate

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Some gig employers are responding to the pressure with voluntary commitments to improve worker conditions. In India, a number of companies have pledged contributions to the proposed gig-worker social security fund. And Uber recently signed a voluntary memorandum of understanding with the International Transport Workers Federation to negotiate certain benefits. 

Voluntary agreements “can be a temporary solution or a very first step, but it obviously needs to be followed by stronger state regulation”, López says. One example is the Glovo Couriers Pledge, which Fairwork advised on, under which Glovo commits to paying a regional living wage and paid sick leave to couriers, among other protections. Of course, implementation and monitoring will be key. 

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Company reforms often come in response to sustained pressure from customers and clients. López says, “One way of change would also be for consumers, for example, to give signals to platforms and to show platforms that actually they can benefit from implementing labour rights and labour standards.” For instance, a Berlin government department is one of the organisations that have signed the Fairwork Pledge – a public commitment to supporting fairer platform work, such as by only working with platforms that score higher on the Fairwork ratings. 

Positive momentum?

In the places where policymakers are trying to drive change, their efforts have mainly focused on worker classification: that is, whether someone should be considered a freelancer or an employee, with all the legal protections that this status would provide. This is important, but far from sufficient. Steward stresses “the need to address the broader job quality issues”. She points out that even if gig workers were classified as employees, theirs wouldn’t all be good jobs; they would still face issues of low and unpredictable earnings.  

Some US states have sought to pass laws that give workers weak, individualised benefits that are not comparable to employment, Steward adds. In California, legal challenges over Proposition 22, which exempts platforms from having to classify their gig workers as employees, are ongoing. 

Changing the legal status of gig workers could exclude the migrant workers who form such a large portion of gig workers in many countries, however. As López puts it, there’s a risk of leaving “the most vulnerable migrants unprotected; they might not have a formal work permit or a formal registration in the country”. Some gig workers are bound to remain freelancers, whether by choice or by necessity. So overall, López argues, “regulations should be more comprehensive in the sense of also thinking about those workers that will continue to be self-employed”, for instance regarding access to accident insurance and sick pay. 

Before Covid-19, moves to better regulate gig work were underway but, as Natabaalo says, “the pandemic brought the gig economy to the fore”. Certain kinds of gig workers became more visible and relied-upon, even as inequalities deepened. Gig workers’ income fluctuated more than traditional workers’ during the pandemic, and only some frontline gig workers could afford to step away from this work due to health concerns. 

Experts hope the pandemic’s uncertainties have sparked a reckoning over dignified and just working conditions. Building on such momentum, for instance, early in 2021 the UK Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling about Uber drivers being employees. And late in 2021, the EU directive on platform work was proposed. If it passes in its current form, López believes “there is a good chance” that more delivery platforms in other European countries will offer regular employment to workers, giving them access to basic social protections. (Significantly, however, the directive does not establish collective bargaining rights for platform workers.) 

Steward is among those hoping for progress at this critical juncture. When it comes to improving the quality of gig jobs, she says she’s “cautiously optimistic that we will see some changes”.



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