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GIG ECONOMY OP-ED

Uber, Bolt and other platform workers must unite for better conditions – but they need support

Uber, Bolt and other platform workers must unite for better conditions – but they need support
(Photo: Unsplash / Humphrey Muleba)

The non-unionisation of platform workers continues to keep workers’ pay, safety and working conditions in a poor state. Despite the country’s long trade union history, platforms in South Africa are highly reluctant to formally recognise workers’ unions.

In 2023, Fairwork – an action-research project based at the University of Oxford that sheds light on platform workers’ conditions – conducted its fifth annual evaluation of the South African platform economy, investigating working conditions at five platforms across the ride-hailing, food delivery, home maintenance and domestic services sectors.

Fairwork’s analysis of Uber, Uber Eats, Mr D Food, Home+ and SweepSouth rated platforms against the five Fairwork principles: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation. 

The findings suggest that there is more to be done to improve the working conditions of platform workers – particularly on workers’ representation. 

Despite a long trade union history, platforms in South Africa are highly reluctant to recognise workers’ unions formally. 

During Fairwork’s engagements with platform managers, researchers encountered resistance to establishing a readily accessible channel for workers to communicate with one another and present their shared grievances to management.

Platform managers are averse to trade unions and feel confident they can address workers’ issues one-on-one.

A platform manager who spoke to Fairwork on their views on workers’ collectives and unions said: “We don’t even like the smell of a workers’ union in our organisation. We prefer to engage with workers’ challenges one-to-one to ensure there is no place or business for the union between workers and the management.”

Collective bargaining benefits

While it is true that platforms can effectively address some challenges workers face through an individualised process, many problems require collective bargaining. 

Collective representation is beneficial for workers and employers. 

It can help nurture worker-employer relationships, benefiting workers’ dignity and safety and employers’ profits. A considerate work environment can encourage workers to stay longer on a platform, minimising turnover. 

Supporting workers can also potentially improve the reputational economy of platforms among workers and customers.

In another instance, our research found that women working on domestic care and grocery delivery platforms reported that they worried about cancelling jobs out of fear that they might receive a low platform rating. 

Low ratings could result in less work and income since the platform algorithm can deprioritise low-rated workers from getting future work.

This included when jobs put workers at risk, such as by travelling into a high-risk neighbourhood in the late hours, and left workers concerned for their safety. As a result, these workers tend to leave the platform. Only collective representation can solve this type of work challenge.

Fairwork’s research also found that external factors such as the Covid pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and rising inflation have worsened platform worker welfare – making fair representation even more critical.

The United Nations Development Programme reported that the war in Ukraine triggered uncertainty about the global economy’s recovery, particularly South Africa’s economy, which had been beginning to recover from the pandemic.

Further, fuel prices have increased by about 40% since more than a year ago. These increased costs due to the ongoing economic crisis have affected platform workers’ financial safety across all sectors. 

SA workers organise

Despite anti-union sentiment from some platforms, platform workers in many sectors have taken it upon themselves to organise in South Africa. 

The Fairwork South Africa Ratings 2021 report identified that workers had begun to organise informally through WhatsApp and Facebook groups, initiated and run by workers.

The interviews Fairwork has conducted with South African platform workers over the years have highlighted the importance of these networks for information-sharing and discussion among the workers.

In 2022, organising efforts culminated in strike actions by ride-hailing drivers. Drivers working for Uber, Bolt, InDriver and DiDi conducted a three-day strike in major cities. Beginning in Gauteng and expanding to Cape Town and Durban, the strike was organised by a group called Unity in Diversity.

Other strikes and protests were initiated in 2022 and 2023 by organisations representing ride-hailing drivers, including the E-hailing Partners Council and the Western Cape E-hailing Association.

However, ad hoc and spontaneous protests by workers face difficulty converting themselves into recognised unions. 

Platform workers are classified as independent contractors and thus are not provided with the basic labour rights embedded within South African labour law, including collective bargaining, freedom of association, and protection against unfair dismissal and discrimination.

As a result, several workers reported they felt unsafe and could not participate in public protests for fear of losing their jobs. Formal recognition of worker groups will allow them to freely express their issues to their employers.

Legal basis

The South African Constitution acknowledges all workers’ right to fair labour practices irrespective of employment status – this means the country has a legal basis for forming platform-worker unions. 

Fairwork’s engagements with workers, consumers and platform managers have emphasised the need for a multistakeholder regulatory meeting in South Africa to identify strategies to tackle platform workers’ challenges.

In one platform management meeting with Fairwork, a platform manager welcomed such a proposal and even suggested a consultation with platforms and regulators at the national level. 

Agencies like the Department of Employment and Labour, South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, and advocacy efforts by platforms like SweepSouth to campaign for domestic care workers’ minimum wage are critical to creating the space to discuss various issues.

Our research also found some best practices adopted by platforms to improve their engagement with workers. For example, Home+ offers all its workers above the minimum and living wages.

However, without worker representation, a dialogue will not produce suitable solutions for the on-the-ground issues. A multistakeholder discussion could allow workers to engage with platforms and regulators to voice their demands.

Including workers at the decision-making table is critical for the South African economy’s evolution. Otherwise, the non-unionisation of platform workers will continue to keep workers’ pay, safety and conditions in a poor state. DM

Dr Murali Shanmugavelan is a postdoctoral researcher at Fairwork, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

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