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Opinion

Gig economy must share rewards as well as risks with workers

COVID-19 has caused many on digital platforms to lose their jobs

| India
Gojek motorcycle taxi driver waits for passengers during a partial lockdown in Jakarta on May 1: gig workers have been left with nowhere to go.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Jai Vipra is a technology policy researcher focusing on the economics of digital platforms in the Global South.

Among the masses of the newly unemployed in Asia, thanks to COVID-19's economic damage, are millions of workers in the gig economy: people on precarious contracts with digital platforms like Uber, Gojek or Deliveroo.

When times were good, digital platform startups were able to raise capital because they could grow fast, rapidly hiring gig workers with the promise of fast cash. That dream did not last long, and as these companies continued to grow and raise investments, gig workers' conditions deteriorated. Now that times are bad, gig workers have been left with nowhere to go; a few charitable funds for employee welfare are the extent of the protection they enjoy.

Meanwhile, gig workers who did not lose their jobs put themselves at risk of contracting coronavirus to deliver food and medicine to locked-down residents.

Gig workers' misery has called into question the business models of digital platforms. If their workers have had to bear economic risk, why should they not be participants in economic prosperity? The questions COVID-19 has prompted are going to loom large over the digital era of capitalism.

The pandemic was yet another illustration of how the gig economy has failed to live up to its promise of empowering workers. For those who lost work, there was no specific government assistance in most Asian countries because they are not classified as workers but independent contractors.

At the advent of the "sharing economy" around a decade ago, companies assured workers that as independent contractors with digital platforms, they would have more flexible work hours and higher earnings. They also told workers that they could convert their existing assets, such as cars, into productive assets, for example by driving them for a cab service and earning some extra cash.

The reality in both developed and developing Asian countries is that gig workers have to work very long hours to make a living. Worse, many gig workers took out loans to finance these productive assets. When their earnings failed to live up to promised levels, they struggled to pay them back.

Unlike in the West, in some Asian countries gig workers do not even own these assets -- they work through traditional contractors who own, for example, a fleet of taxis. These contractors take a cut of workers' meager earnings. They end up having neither flexibility nor security.

Gig workers ought to be paid much better when the economy normalizes, but that should be just the beginning. They need to be covered by basic labor protections like unionized workforces and by specific protections, like the right to algorithmic transparency and fairness.

Many drivers complain that taxi apps skew algorithms to cap their earnings. Food delivery workers play a guessing game on what makes their ratings go up -- sometimes ratings are even tied to how quickly customers review services after delivery. Workers for TripAdvisor in Indonesia have complained that new people cannot possibly compete on ratings with early adopters.

All these examples point to the need for companies to be held to a minimum standard of transparency and accountability with respect to algorithms that determine workers' pay, benefits and working conditions. Workers deserve information about how these decisions are being made and the kinds of behavior that are rewarded or punished by algorithms.

Secondly, gig workers deserve protection against policies that promote customer welfare at their expense. Platform policies as a general rule favor customers over workers.

Zomato, a food delivery platform in India, sacrificed workers' privacy at the altar of customer reassurance during the pandemic. It shared minute details about delivery workers with customers, including their exact body temperature.

A security guard check the temperature of Zomato delivery personel in Gurugram on Mar. 25: the company sacrificed workers' privacy at the altar of customer reassurance.   © Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In another example, ride-hailing apps Uber and Ola have instituted numerous safety measures for riders but few for drivers, who are also at risk from riders. Last year, their drivers in India went on strike for these measures, among other demands.

Across Asia, gig work has replaced fast-disappearing formal work. We do not need to take the pitfalls of such labor arrangements as a given: gig workers deserve labor protections extended to other workers and specific rights that are tied to digital technology. The severe blow to gig workers that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, and the exemplary role gig workers played on the front lines, only underscore this pressing need.

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