Gig workers falling through pandemic protection

Aug 20, 2020

Many people have pointed out how various groups have been forgotten in the official response to the Covid-19 pandemic: casual workers, temporary migrants, and anyone involved in universities.

Credit – Unsplash

One group that barely rates a mention, however, was flavour of the month before the pandemic hit: gig economy workers. And their vulnerability has implications for the health of all of us.

Gig economy workers have been hit in two ways. For one thing, many lost work, big time. At one stage, demand for rideshare work (Uber and the like) fell by 80 per cent. Mind you, changes in patronage varied a lot between sectors: demand for home delivery of restaurant meals rose. Still, many suffering the severest falls were temporary migrants or international students and, like casuals or university workers, they were out of scope of Jobkeeper assistance.

All, though, were affected by the low level of income and health security for gig economy workers. All are classed as independent contractors rather than employees by the corporations for whom they work. As independent contractors, they have no sick leave entitlements. Many who are temporary migrants dont even qualify for Medicare.

The platform firms prioritise, seemingly above all else, preventing their workers being classified as employees rather than contractors. For example, Uber threatened to temporarily cease operations in California if it was required by a court decision to treat its workers there as employees.

When there is no payment for time off, gig workers have a strong financial incentive to log on for work even when they have Covid symptoms or are awaiting test results, times when they should be home in self-isolation. The incentive is even higher if they have already experienced a fall in income. Take a calculated or not-so-calculated risk to do that shift.

So it is that rideshare rivers in California and the UK have died from Covid-19, caught from coughing or maybe asymptomatic passengers.

Readers might think that they can at least avoid the health effects of this by not catching an Uber or a taxi. But few realise how the gig effect permeates other industries like health care. A third of gig workers work across multiple apps, with one in nine using four or more. Most gig workers are underemployed.

For 7 per cent of gig economy workers, the main platform they use dispenses caring work, which might be in aged or disability care, as well as child and even pet care. Six of the 34 most commonly used apps are in this caring category. One attracted up to $6 million from the federal government to enable a surge workforce in aged care, but the firm offered no duty of care and, for a key client, no surge workforce.

When I looked for Covid-19 information at the Australian website of the most widely used (non-pet) care site, it was very American-focused (the elderly and caregivers were advised to lean into disinfectants) and had not been updated since March 2020. Elsewhere it told me that the average hourly rate for aged carers in Australia was between $23 and $29, but only one provider advertised at above this range, half of those initially shown were below it, including one in single digits, and the low pay model was clearly on display.

All sorts of protocols are being belatedly put in place to try to deal with the problems arising from what are effectively casualised workers in nursing homes, many of whom work in multiple workplaces because they are underemployed. The majority of deaths from Covid-19 have been amongst older, vulnerable people, and nursing home clusters have scared regulators into action. After initially refusing, because the actuality of elevated infection had not yet happened, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) granted paid pandemic leave to aged care workers but to no casuals outside it.

This was in the context of widespread concern about the fact that a quarter of the Australian workforce (those we call casuals) have no access to sick leave, worse than any developed country except perhaps the USA or Korea.

But the FWC decision could not apply to non-employees like gig economy workers. Gig work in the care sector is, on average, more atomised even than casual work. Gig workers may be less likely to catch the virus from another worker to pass on to a client (they have less contact with them), but more likely to catch it from an ill client and pass it to another.

Platform firms are notorious for not providing training, and wont waste money on Covid-19 infection training an issue critical in infection control in nursing homes and elsewhere. Many platform workers are expected to do infection training in their own time. Given data weaknesses, I do not yet know how to estimate the numbers of care workers, and elderly and disabled care recipients, who have been endangered by this situation. But with the supply of experienced labour declining as some care workers become wary of the risks, the training of those who remain is even more questionable.

Under growing pressure, the federal government two weeks ago introduced a disaster payment for Victorians who tested positive or were close contacts of a confirmed case and also lacked sick leave. Doing it this way helps gig workers in those circumstances, but makes it very clear that sick leave for anything else is off the agenda, for gig workers and casuals.

The paperwork for disaster relief payments is also much more cumbersome than conventional sick leave, and beyond the patience or capabilities of many gig workers. So, many will continue to work.

Action is required on several fronts. There is an immediate need for proper training in paid time for platform workers across the care sector.

Over the medium to longer term, governments need to consider ways of enabling platform workers access to the same rights, entitlements and income and safety protections as permanent, full-time workers.

The platform firms will not do this of their own accord, but in the end they will do what they are forced to. Sometimes they even do it to pre-empt government action. Rather than be seen as a heartless corporation, and rather than being forced to normalise its workforce, in many countries Uber provided drivers with video messages, hygiene kits and sanitation bags, required clients to wear masks, and even offered some drivers two weeks of sick pay if they had to isolate due to Covid-19.

Finding longer term solutions may require different approaches for different situations, tailored to the circumstances at hand. But it must be done.

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