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Uber, uber on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

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Uber, uber on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Anri van der Spuy

01 Jul 2019

3min min read
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ou forsake plastic straws, buy free range and organic, and tip nicely. But do you also think before you hail that Uber, order in that sushi on a rainy night, or book someone to clean your house for a few hours on an app? 

With South Africa’s economy contracting, employment is likely to rise from its current level of 27%. Many of South Africa and Africa’s developmental problems – including unemployment – might be alleviated through online work, which can offer South Africans access to new markets and more flexible work arrangements. But gig platforms like Uber or Bolt (ride-hailing), SweepSouth or Domestly (domestic services), and UpWork or NoSweat (freelance work) also raise important ethical concerns regarding the treatment of workers. 

Platform workers are at risk of exploitation because they have little to no legal protection. Most platform owners refuse to acknowledge that those who use their platforms to find short-term work are, well, ‘workers’ (or employees). As a result, gig workers don’t qualify for the labour protections many in this country have fought long for, and platform owners can extract much more wealth from South Africa and the work process. In the case of foreign registered platforms, much of their income also goes untaxed in this jurisdiction.

Our courts haven’t been particularly helpful in protecting the small but growing number of gig workers in the country, and legislation is notoriously slow to reform to meet the unique needs of technological developments. (Given how our policymakers are gearing up for the contentious, so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, this is probably a good thing.) At the same time, the size of some of these platforms (especially the international ones with their deep pockets for advertising, legal or even impound fees, in the case of Uber), means that they have significant market power to draw on – making it immensely difficult for fairer, more competitive alternatives to survive and thrive in local markets.

Enter the Fairwork Foundation, a non-profit research initiative based out of the Oxford Internet Institute. Modelled on similar principles as the Fair Trade Organization, the Foundation published its scores for ten gig platforms in South Africa in early June, highlighting the best and worst practices in South Africa’s platform economy. All of the platforms were invited to workshops, consulted and given the opportunity to provide input to influence the process, from the development of scoring mechanisms to the actual scoring process.

"Platform workers are at risk of exploitation because they have little to no legal protection. Most platform owners refuse to acknowledge that those who use their platforms to find short-term work are, well, ‘workers’ (or employees)."

Scores were allocated based on how well platforms achieve Fairwork’s ‘big five’ of work standards: fair work, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation. The platforms that have been scored include well-known global platforms like Uber (scoring 5/10), Uber Eats (3/10) and Bolt (4/10), but also growing local start-ups like Domestly (4/10), SweepSouth (7/10), No Sweat (8/10), PicUp (5/10) and Wumdrop (2/10). 

Fairwork has arguably done what courts or regulation have been unable to do so far: it has encouraged some platforms to willingly improve work conditions without being forced to do so by legislation or court rulings. The local freelance gig platform No Sweat, for example, has introduced significant changes in several areas of fairness. It pays above the minimum wage after taking the workers’ costs into account, has a clear process to ensure that clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety while also having a clear process for workers to lodge grievance about conditions. It is further committed to consensual and informed process of minimal data collection by the platform. 

Besides encouraging platform reform, the scores also enable users to take more considered decisions about which services to choose and support (e.g., WumDrop vs Picup or NomadNow vs NoSweat). One domestic service app (SweepSouth), for instance, fares significantly better than a competitor (Domestly) as a result of not only having been awarded points for fair pay, management and contracts, but also having actively improved working conditions by proving work-related insurance and facilitating worker voice mechanisms on the platform.

While these scores are arguably only a starting point to a more equitable information society in South Africa, they at the very least encourage platforms to act more responsibly while simultaneously making it easier for users to choose the fairer of service options. 

(Main image: Man using his phone while driving in the rain - Stock Photo/ Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.