Opinion: The impact of COVID-19 on African gig workers — and what needs to be done

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People waiting in front of an employment agency in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo by: Marcel Crozet / ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

COVID-19 has drawn global attention to the fragile nature of work for people in the gig economy; with few legislated benefits or worker protections, these people are among those hardest hit economically by the crisis. But while the issue is global, some places will be harder hit than others.

Across Africa, millions of people rely on digital marketplaces to find gigs. Many people we spoke to in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana who find work through such platforms have no savings, no insurance, and no safety net, and they report that costs have gone up; prices for food and basic medicines have doubled since the outbreak. Lockdowns and social distancing mean place-based workers like cleaners, drivers, carpenters, and manicurists across the continent are struggling to earn a living.

Gig workers in many of these countries are already reporting that their savings — on which they can live for four to six weeks to buy basic necessities — are depleting. Their families are drawing closer to malnutrition, starvation, longer-term exclusion from the labor market, and other socioeconomic issues that could far outlast the pandemic.

Some platforms are doing what they can. All the companies we spoke to are providing workers with education or personal protective equipment. Logistics companies like Max.ng quickly adapted processes to reduce transmission risk, such as no-contact delivery. SweepSouth is crowdfunding to pay nominal amounts to out-of-work cleaners on their platform over the coming months. Lynk issued a proposal for cleaners to disinfect essential businesses during the crisis. M4Jam has partnered with mobile operator Cell C to pay workers small amounts for completing at-home training. And Sendy provided drivers on their platform with a new health insurance policy in response to the outbreak.

Going further to protect gig workers

Despite these valiant efforts, they fall short of providing workers with what they really need: income that is sufficient for food, shelter, and health care for their families while they are unable to work.

As COVID-19 has highlighted the precariousness of gig work around the globe, some digital marketplaces in the United States and Europe — under pressure from lawmakers and labor groups — have introduced sick pay for platform workers who become infected or need to self-isolate. And governments of some wealthy countries, such as the United States, have temporarily expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits not normally available to gig workers.

Such support is unlikely to be available to Africa’s platform workers. Here, the transition to a digital economy is nascent; most locally-founded African platforms have been in operation for less than three years and generally have lower cash reserves to support workers in a downturn, even if labor groups had the clout to effectively advocate for this.

Additionally, banks in Africa have long neglected the specific needs of entrepreneurs and the self-employed, so platforms have few places to turn to negotiate financial products for workers using their sites.

Some established global platforms are offering support. Uber’s coronavirus financial assistance policy is available worldwide, however, drivers we spoke to in Kenya and Ghana hadn’t heard of it and the eligibility requirements — documentation from a health authority or doctor — will be hard to meet while public health systems are so stretched. Others are more reluctant to offer support to African gig workers; Estonian ride-hailing company Bolt offers drivers on its platform in Europe a COVID-19 financial assistance package, similar to Uber’s, but not to drivers in Kenya.

African governments, most with budgets already strained before the crisis, will struggle to fill these gaps. While some quickly introduced fiscal and other relief measures — such as loan forgiveness and utility cost waivers — these will not have a significant impact on gig-worker livelihoods.

Based on what workers told us, cash transfers may provide the greatest help and indeed this has been the most widely-used social assistance response to the pandemic. But it will take time for money to reach those not already enrolled in social safety net programs as governments grapple with the complexities of implementing new schemes — an acute challenge in low-income countries with less-developed identity systems and delivery mechanisms, let alone the matter of how to finance the payments.

What needs to happen now?

Donors could collaborate with platforms to help African gig-workers in several ways: enabling payments for stay-at-home training; connecting people to new, COVID-19-related work, such as mask-making or delivering food to the vulnerable; and matching labor supply and demand across platforms so that workers from platforms seeing a downturn can be connected with those seeing a spike. With their payments infrastructure and data on workers’ historical earnings, platforms also constitute a potentially effective conduit for cash transfers.

While such immediate support is critical, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic flaws in the gig economy that hamper worker resilience longer term. Fortunately, some platforms have incorporated benefits into their operating models which are providing some relief. Both Max.ng and Gokada provided health insurance for drivers even before COVID-19. Sendy offers a savings scheme which has provided a limited safety net. And the training provided by some companies could equip workers with skills that help them with off-platform work, supporting diversification when platform income is reduced.

But building worker resilience should not be the duty of platforms alone, nor should they be responsible for carrying workers using their sites — who are not employees — across longer-term drops in demand for gigs. Ultimately, COVID-19 has highlighted how the digital age has ushered in changes to working relationships that have rendered the traditional dichotomies of employment and self-employment problematic, and with it the legal frameworks for who is entitled to protections and benefits and from whom.

The International Labour Organization, The Fairwork Foundation, and others have long encouraged discussion, study, and regulatory action to address the decent work deficits of those contingent workers currently occupying the gray area. Hopefully the pandemic will serve to bring this need into clearer focus. What is certain is that the current arrangement has left far too many people far too vulnerable, and a positive outcome from the crisis would be making sure this doesn’t happen again.

About the author

  • Jessica Osborn

    Jessica Osborn is an adviser at Caribou Digital and jointly leads the Mastercard Foundation learning partnership, which has focused on financial inclusion and access to meaningful and dignified work. Jessica also leads Caribou Digital’s Live Learning program which provides bespoke immersive study visits to emerging markets. Jessica has worked in digital technology in Africa for over 13 years.