NOMPU SIZIBA: Gig economy workers have turned out to be the most vulnerable crop of workers during the Covid-19 lockdown, and this has not only been true of South Africa, but around the world as well. This is the finding of the Fairwork project, a research project that’s been done in collaboration with various South African and foreign university research units. In their conclusions, they’ve called on employment agencies that marry workers with businesses and governments to better safeguard these types of worker. One gig economy platform or work agency that was found to have tried to safeguard such people’s livelihoods is Money4Jam.
I’m joined on the line by Georgie Midgley, the CEO of Money4Jam. Thank you, Georgie, for joining us. Let’s start with some definitions: what sort of workers are considered to be gig-economy workers?
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: Gig-economy workers are essentially people who earn based on the outcome of tasks. A good examples would be the Uber driver; when he connects to a passenger, when he completes that ride, he is paid for that gig or that particular piece of work or task. That classifies them as a gig worker. They are generally considered to be independent contractors, not full-time employees.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Right. So as indicative of the report’s title, Fairwork, it looks at issues of fair pay, fair working conditions, fair contracts and so on. It found pretty much that most gig-economy platforms or employment agencies didn’t score very well in this regard, and hence the level of job insecurity experienced by gig-economy workers. Just elaborate on that.
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: Generally, if the tasks are not available, gig workers unfortunately do not earn, which does put them in a very vulnerable position and it’s exposed. So what we have found with this lockdown is that the majority of gig companies have just really shut off the work, which has resulted in all these gig workers losing all their income, and only a couple have tried to make amends. But it’s obviously not easy, and unfortunately gig workers do not have the safety net that permanent employees have.
NOMPU SIZIBA: You and another company, SweepSouth, which hires temp cleaners, were found to be somewhat more humane in dealing with these type of workers during the crisis. Just tell us, as M4Jam, what kind of work do you tend to secure for casual workers, like your gig-economy workers, or what industry do you partner with? And how have you handled the economic and financial mess caused by the lockdown?
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: Money4Jam has local jobbers. They are independent contractors, and there are just over 300 000 of them registered on our platform. And they do micro tasks for us, and micro training. But we focus on the micro task – small quick things you can do that take five to ten minutes to complete, and you get paid on outcome. So a good example would be a client who’s wanting to know what if every single spaza shop in the country stocks their goods.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes.
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: So an FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] company. And, instead of sending an auditor around to check that, we would mobilise the crowd in those areas and pay the person who actually goes to that spaza to answer our survey on our behalf. We crowd-source information, and we are very focused on rurals. So those who do have quite a large crowd around urban areas, we prefer to prefer to focus most of our jobs on your more outlying areas. We are quite strong in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape.
So in a lockdown situation like this, obviously we can’t, due to social distancing, do any location-based jobs. They can’t go look at those spazas, taverns, hairdressers. So we will obviously have to shut down for that work, which limits a lot of our jobbers and causes a huge financial burden on them.
NOMPU SIZIBA: The report basically says that these temporary workers have no safety net whatsoever, as you’ve already said – unlike those in the more formal economy. And the researchers are now advocating that not only platforms like yours could do more to assist, but governments as well. What sort of ideas do you have around broader solutions in this regard?
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: The biggest problem is that there is a potential exploitation of workers that are not covered by regulation. And the gig economy really does play such an important role, specifically in South Africa where there are not enough jobs, and it can be used to supplement income and provide a much-needed temporary employment option for people. And I do find a lot of our jobbers are temporary jobbers. They come on just because they need to earn enough money to look for a job interview, or study.
Then we have our jobbers who do this full time, and those are the ones we are particularly worried about – the ones that are the sole source of income in their households, and without that income they are going to starve. So I do think that these platforms have a role to play in ensuring that their workers are looked after, but governments also have to. There has to be some sort of regulation to prevent this sort of exploitation.
Our jobs are slightly different. If the cash is not right, it just doesn’t get done. But if you look at other gig platforms, those that take their cut, if you want to work done, you don’t get to actually have a say. So I think there is a lot of grey when it comes to these platforms, and I think we can see a lot of exploitation, which is often the big negative perception around these platforms.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. I think you’ve hinted at it, but what more do you think needs to be done to reduce the financial vulnerability of these workers? Do you think their rights in this regard may need to be legislated for?
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: I definitely think some sort regulation or legislation does need to come to the fore, because gig platforms are going to become that much more relevant as a result of Covid-19. My personal opinion is that there is going to be the emergence of gig platforms. Just looking at the delivery economy, I think we are going to see the roads are going to be filled with bikes and deliveries to the home, which was up and coming is going to become a norm. We are going to see lots of people doing deliveries, and it’s all going to be based on gig work. So at some point I think the government is going to have to legislate and regulate this particular economy, because I think it could be exploited.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Of course, you know, there’s been financial economic devastation in the short term. But once the economy starts to get back slowly, are you optimistic about the recovery rate in terms of jobs lost during the lockdown, particularly in the gig economy?
GEORGIE MIDGLEY: We talk about digitising different businesses, and looking at the way we do things in a different way. So, taking a traditional process and looking at in the way that, instead of giving one person a job, break it up into smaller jobs and help that many more people.
So I’m positive about this; we’ve actually been very busy during the lockdown, and we see very good things for our future. When the lockdown goes down to lower levels of two and three, then we can open up our location … again. And I think that’s actually the case for a number of these gig persons. So, from our perspective I think it’s a very good place to be. Like they say, Covid-19 has created a digital transformation in a lot of businesses – not CEOs, CTOs and CFOs.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes. Nobody saw it coming. That was Georgie Midgley, the CEO of Money4Jam.