Could a working conditions rating system protect gig economy workers?

A team of academics has created the world’s first rating system for working in the gig economy, with the aim of ensuring that the likes of Uber and Deliveroo treat their workers more fairly.

The ratings highlight both shortfalls and good practices at individual platforms. They aim to protect the millions of digital gig economy workers around the world, who often have low pay, scant job security, and poor working conditions, without the legal protections of permanent employees.

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A recent report by independent MP Frank Field found that the laws governing work in the gig economy were “inadequate”.

“There is virtually no proactive enforcement mechanism to prevent workers being misclassified as ‘independent contractors’ and subjected to bogus forms of self-employment,” report authors Field and Andrew Forsey concluded. “The onus currently falls on individual workers to enforce the law.”

Richard Heeks, a Professor of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester and one of the academics behind the Fairwork rating system, compares the current employment protections in the gig economy to the Wild West.

“As things open up they’re rather unregulated, and as a result of that, although there’s a lot of positives about the gig economy – jobs being created, new opportunities, flexibility, all that sort of stuff – the work falls short of International Labour Organisation Decent Work standards,” Professor Heeks tells Techworld.

“There are various ways in which you can approach that to try and make things better; you could work with government or you could work with unions. But one way that we thought would be particularly effective would be working with the platforms themselves and also with other stakeholders, to give a signal about how well the platforms were performing against these decent work standards.”

Professor Heeks and his colleagues from the universities of Manchester, Oxford, Cape Town, and the Western Cape created the Fairwork Foundation to boil these standards down to a set of five principles: fair work, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation.

For each of these five principles, platforms can be awarded a basic point for a foundational achievement and an advanced point for implementing measures that go beyond the minimum requirements. The points are then added up to a total fairness score out of 10.

“To give a simple example, the first principle is fair pay,” says Heeks. “They get one point if workers are earning about the minimum wage, and they get the second point if workers are earning above the minimum wage, taking into account their costs. Take the example of an Uber driver: you’d get one point is they were earning anything above the minimum wage direct to their pocket, and you’d get two points if you then subtract, for example, their fuel costs and insurance costs and all of the things they have to pay out in order to be an Uber driver. That’s the basic principle.”

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The ratings aim to help workers choose the best platform for their labour, consumers to make more informed choices, and investors to add an ethical element to their financial decisions. Ultimately, they hope to motivate the platforms to protect the labour rights of gig economy workers.

Pilot makes the case

The five principles were developed through discussions with the platforms, workers, trade unions, regulators, and academics held at the International Labour Organisation.

They are then applied to local conditions through multi-stakeholder workshops at which all the different groups discuss the domestic issues around each of the principles.

In South Africa, where Heeks and his colleague at the University of Cape Town are leading the data collection for a pilot of the system, this would include the country’s legislation on black economic empowerment and the national minimum wage that was introduced in January.

Platforms are then informed that they will be rated against the five principles. This gives them the opportunity to address some of their shortfalls by implementing standards such as recognising collective bargaining, formalising contracts, or providing better-informed consent about data collection.

The ratings are then published for the benefit of workers, platforms, and consumers, whether they’re individuals looking to buy a takeaway or corporations deciding which taxi company they want to award a contract.

The system has already had an impact in South Africa. It led BOTTLES, an on-demand alcohol delivery platform, to commit to fair worker representation on its platform, pay over the minimum wage, and ensure clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety.

“Platforms are willing to change and have made changes, so clearly this is a model that is working, in terms of not just giving the rating, but making a difference to the standards of work for the workers on those platforms,” says Heeks.

The Fairwork ratings system is also being piloting in India, the UK and Germany. Fairwork is also developing an international standard for digital working conditions and a certification scheme that would give qualifying platforms a label akin to the Fair Trade Certified Mark.

“They see that not only as a selling point, but it would be disseminating a role model to some of the newer platforms coming into the sector,” says Heeks.

“The intention is to still allow all of the opportunities and the positives of the gig economy to flow, because we know it’s going to be an increasingly important part of work, but to ensure that those opportunities don’t undercut decent work standards. In other words, the intention to create far more decent gig work jobs.”

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