Gig Economy Project – The pandemic and the gig economy in global perspective: Interview with Kelle Howson

How has the pandemic changed the gig economy? The Gig Economy Project spoke to Fair Work researcher Kelle Howson to find out. This interview is available as a podcast and text.

The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust

Photo by ‘Chris (a.k.a. MoiVous)

It’s 18 months since the World Health Organisation officially declared that the spread of covid-19 around the world constituted a pandemic. One year and a half on, everything has been changed in one way or another by the global crisis that has ensued, not least the gig economy and the world of work and digital technology more broadly.

But what precisely can we say about how the pandemic has changed the gig economy on a global scale? Have digital labour platforms been tamed or empowered? Are governments finally taking the need to regulate platform work seriously? Has workers’ organisation been broken by the crisis, or is resistance growing?

One of the most systematic global assessments of the gig economy was published last month by the International Labour Review. Stripping back the mask: Working conditions on digital labour platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic is authored by researchers connected to the University of Oxford’s Fair Work Foundation, and is based on reviews of the policies of over 191 platforms in 43 countries.

Kelle Howson, postdoctoral researcher on the Fairwork project at the University of Oxford, is one of the author’s of ‘Stripping back the mask’. Howson works on improving labour standards for platform workers in South Africa, and has previously worked as a senior researcher in New Zealand’s Labour Government.

The Gig Economy Project spoke to Howson about the first 18 months of the pandemic and its impact on the gig economy worldwide, using the ‘Stripping back the mask’ paper as the starting point for discussion. This podcast includes discussion of:

01:22: What has the pandemic revealed about the nature of gig work?

9:04: How has the pandemic affected the dynamics of the platform economy?

17:04: Worker resistance, legal and legislative changes in the platform economy during the pandemic

32:53: How do we draw attention to less visible gig workers?

37:77: Overall assessment of 18 months of the pandemic and platform work



The Gig Economy Project: What has the pandemic revealed about the nature of gig work?

Kelle Howson: We started writing this paper in this very acute time of the pandemic, we had just gone into lockdown, and I should say this research was spearheaded by Dr Funda Ustek-Spilda who led the field research, and I was lucky to be able to help put together the resulting paper.

At that time I don’t think it was only in the gig economy we were seeing this, in so many aspects of our economy and society we were seeing how the crisis laid bear the vulnerabilities, where the cracks existed and where people were falling through them, and we very much saw that in the gig economy.

These risks and vulnerabilities had existed before, but at the time of the lockdowns and the immediate crisis there were two dual risks that gig workers were confronted with. For those gig workers who could still go to work, and in many countries were classed as essential workers or something similar, they had little choice but to keep going to work. They had no social protections and if they lost their ability to work they lost their livelihood overnight. These were jobs like food delivery couriers which have become a very familiar, frontline part of the pandemic responses.

Then there were other categories of gig workers who weren’t able to work in the immediate phase of the pandemic, and these were domestic workers, cleaners, people who’s work did require them to be physically on location but weren’t seen as essential, and so those workers did lose their income overnight often without any access to the kind of protection which governments were putting in place for other kinds of workers, like the furlough scheme in the UK.

These two categories of workers faced different risks: the first had to go to work and so faced exposure to the virus, and at that time we still knew so little about how the virus was transmitted and access to PPE was really patchy. It was a scary time for everyone but if you were driving with Uber in those early days, that was quite a terrifying thing I imagine. And then the other category of workers who couldn’t work saw their income lost overnight, which had always been the risk of working in the gig economy.

GEP: What about the macroeconomic effects on the platform economy from the pandemic crisis, in terms of pay, jobs and growth?

KH: The hard data is quite difficult to come by, because a lot of that data is held by the platforms. They have the numbers on how many gig workers are entering the gig economy and in what sectors, and they are very reluctant to share those numbers. But there are certainly some trends that seem very clear observationally.

Sectors like food delivery and last mile delivery are booming, and we have also seen job losses in many other parts of the economy, again hitting the most vulnerable workers the hardest. Those trends are racialised: they are much more likely to hit migrant workers, for instance, as well as women workers. These are all vulnerable workers that have lost their jobs and are potentially being pushed into the gig economy. So we definitely know that the supply of workers is there, though whether that is matched by demand is another question.

It’s very hard to say exactly how the numbers of gig workers mights have grown. The latest ILO World Economic & Social Outlook report showed there has been a lot of growth in the cloud work section of the gig economy – online remote working, online freelancing, micro-tasking – are commensurate with the explosion in remote working that has been driven by the pandemic. So there are these two types of gig workers, one where work needs to be performed in a specific location but also the online gig economy which is huge and really growing very fast.

GEP: Has there been any systemic changes to the way in which platforms manage their workers?

KH: What our paper really tried to highlight was that up until the start of the pandemic, digital labour platforms really held on very tightly to this narrative that workers are independent and they don’t have any responsibility for working conditions. The legal status quo rested on this assertion: that they couldn’t take any responsibility for health & safety as otherwise they were undermining the self-employed status of their workers.

When the pandemic happened and there was this obvious need for workers to be protected in terms of PPE and potentially compensation for income loss because of lockdowns, that position became a lot more tenuous for platforms. They didn’t have the social license anymore to say ‘this isn’t our problem, we wash our hands of this’. By taking responsibility we did see that most platforms we surveyed did put some kind of protective measures in place even if it was just providing PPE, and those measures varied quite a lot.

But the moment they did that they were ceding ground in terms of their claims about worker independence and their claims that they don’t have responsibilities for health & safety. With those minor positive changes that needed to be put in place really quickly, we argued in the paper that the door opened a tiny bit for legal challenges on the basis of workers’ subordination to the platforms.

GEP: There was a quote in the report from a gig worker in Cape Town, South Africa in April 2020, who said: The government must help us with food as well, but I am a foreigner here in South Africa so I don’t think government can help us with food. The issue of race, migration and the gig economy are tied together. I presume those vulnerabilities for migrant gig workers have been exacerbated by the pandemic?

KH: We definitely saw in South Africa and also here in the UK, that even where there was protections put in place by governments, such as the self-employed scheme in the UK, workers had difficulties accessing those protections for a host of reasons, including their migration status.

This is something that comes up again and again and again in the gig economy. It’s no accident that there is a higher representation of migrant workers on gig economy platforms, and platforms are well aware of that and these workers are more vulnerable for many reasons. They might not have legal immigration status and so they can’t easily access protections even when those protections exist. And that’s the case for a lot of gig workers, and in some ways that suits platforms.

GEP: Let me ask you about worker resistance. The report states that during the pandemic in Latin America there was “the first real example of an international, sector-wide, strike movement in the gig economy”. In India at Zomato where the company has responded by blocking the IDs of riders who have participated in the strikes. We’ve also seen a national riders’ strike in Italy. Has there been a clear growth in industrial action since the pandemic crisis began?

KH: Yes, there definitely has. We can debate the extent to which the pandemic has directly contributed to this, but I think it has played a really big role. Both in terms of highlighting the essential nature of gig work, building solidarities between workers, and highlighting the responsibilities of platforms. And accompanied by some legal successes, for instance the UK Supreme Court ruling on the status of Uber drivers in the UK has emboldened strikes in other places as well.

The strikes in Latin America and Spain which started in July 2020 were unique and very important because of the international nature [of the action]. These platforms exist at an international scale and can be very ethereal and intangible, and not easily tamed by any one jurisdiction. The importance of international worker power can’t really be overstated.

GEP: We’ve seen a lot of legislative and legal changes across lots of countries during the pandemic. We have had Prop 22 in the US; the Uber Supreme Court decision in the UK, which led to Uber changing its policy to an extent; in Spain we have had the introduction of the Riders Law. What is your overall assessment of the legal and legislative changes that have happened?

KH: Any legal changes that recognise the control that platforms have and the dependence of workers on platforms is positive. These are battles that workers have been fighting for a really long time, and while they have been legitimately criticised in many places it is really important to step back and say these are real victories that come down to workers collective power; this is what is possible when workers organise.

However, one of the big problems is that it’s a really high barrier to have to go to the highest court to make the case that you are an employee, and it shouldn’t be the case that workers are having to take this fight to these really high authorities. In the UK at least the framework exists to demonstrate who is a worker and who is an employee, it shouldn’t be on workers to have to make that case. So unfortunately these court cases are happening because of not a lot of responsive, pro-active legislation, or because of a lack of enforcement from labour inspectorates.

GEP: The general trend in Europe seems to be that the fake self-employment of gig workers on digital labour platforms is going to be clamped down upon. However, rather than hiring workers directly, instead they are going to sub-contract them. We have seen that in Spain with the Riders Law. We’ve seen it with the platform Just Eat across Europe, which has moved away a gig worker model to a sub-contracting model. Is there a danger that one form of precarity will be traded in for another?

KH: Like so many developments in the gig economy we see Uber providing the model. Uber has long been deploying this sub-contracting model in Germany, and sub-contracting has led to new types of precarities. We do need to always expect that platforms will find ways to undermine these new protections and that’s been the case in all of the places where there have been court rulings in workers favour.

I think the strategies that platforms have taken in response to these decisions fall into three categories. The first is trying to find ways to undermine it. Prop-22 is an example of this. Legislation was introduced which classified workers as employees with the full suite of employment protections, and Uber ran a very successful and very sophisticated campaign that softened or was a very watered down version of worker protections. It was on the one hand saying ‘ok, yes, we agree regulation is needed’ but then having the debate on their own terms, and in some cases even writing that legislation on their own terms.

The second category of responses is just ignoring the legal decisions. We have seen that in the UK, where a really important part of the Supreme Court ruling was to say that these Uber drivers are workers and entitled to the benefits of being workers from the time they log-on to the app to the time they log-off, so this definition of working hours was really, really important. And Uber responded by saying ‘no, we are only going to recognise them as workers for the time they are on a job’. This cuts out about 50% of the time that workers are supposed to be earning the minimum wage and accumulating holiday pay. That has been one strategy: to just pick and choose what aspects of the law they are willing to comply with.

I suspect the fact Uber hasn’t seen any consequences from that in the UK has emboldened platforms in Spain, especially Glovo, which has said in response to the Riders Law: ‘Okay, we will hire a small minority of our workers and the rest will continue to be freelancers’. So it takes a lot of resources and a lot of political will to enforce the law, and platforms have super-sophisticated digital tools at their disposal to fly under the radar, to skirt the rules.

The third strategy of platforms is just to exit the market. A lot of platforms don’t own physical assets in the places where their workers are working, and because they don’t employ their workers it’s really easy for them just to walk away from a market. This is the threat that platforms have used over and over again when they are threatened with regulation. We are seeing Deliveroo do that in Spain in response to the Riders Law. I thought it was a bit of a bluff: Uber has left markets from time-to-time and then re-established themselves in that market. But it’s the ultimate threat that platforms can hang over lawmakers. Because they have established themselves in our infrastructures, in terms of transport delivery and other services which as we have seen are essential, they do have a lot of power, especially when they threaten to just up and leave.

GEP: One of the new developments we’ve seen is platforms beginning to form relationships with unions, whereas before they would basically completely ignore the unions which were active among their workers. For instance, following the UK Supreme Court decision, and Uber’s semi-acceptance of that decision, Uber and the GMB have come up with an agreement. What do you make of that development?

As academics our role is not to make judgements about specific workers’ organisations or unions. Part of what we do in the Fair Work project is work really hard to try to get platforms to recognise unions and it’s a really important part of our Fair Work principles.

However, the recognition deal between Uber and the GMB in the UK was perhaps lacking some pretty important aspects. I think the main issue was that it didn’t include the right to negotiate on pay, and what’s really the point in collective bargaining if it doesn’t recognise the most important aspect, which is pay? At the same time, representation is never a bad thing, it’s really important and it’s the only way lasting change will be achieved. Of course it would be incredibly naive to expect these super-powerful platforms to just tomorrow say we are going to recognise all workers’ organisations and I think any leverage is good.

One really important aspect of the Riders Law in Spain was this decision that platforms needed to hand over their data to workers’ organisations, including the personal data they were collecting about workers, information about how their algorithms allocate tasks to workers and information about how workers are surveilled. And I really think this is going to be a super-important tool for improving workers collective power, as it gives workers the ability to actually negotiate with platforms having the necessary information to actually go into those negotiations. Up until now the little collective negotiation that existed was really blind; platforms held all the cards. Workers having the ability to know how they actually are managed is another important step in real representation and real structural power for workers.

GEP – 32:53: I’m conscious that when we are talking about these different disputes and different developments, we are mainly talking about drivers and riders. Obviously the platform economy is much larger than that but other sections of it are not necessarily as visible, like for example home carers. The Riders Law, for example, originally was supposed to be a law for all digital platform workers, but it was pushed back to just be exclusive to food delivery workers. How do we begin to put more attention on to these other sections of the gig economy which are equally exploitative, if not more, but arent getting the same attention?

KH: I think on the one hand there is the hope that the more visible sectors of the gig economy will blaze a trail which will advantageously impact the less visible sectors. That might be a little bit wishful thinking, as we’ve seen in Spain with the Riders Law ultimately only being applied to food couriers.

It’s important to remember that the sectors of the gig economy which are even less visible tend to fall along the social lines we would expect. Workers in home care and domestic work are disproportionately women and these are the workers that are not being served by these positive changes in terms of worker representation and legislation. The only thing we can do is to show how the issues are incredibly similar across the sector and try to advocate for these legislative changes to apply to carers and other gig workers as well.

In the UK, just a couple of days after the Supreme Court decision that forced Uber to recognise their drivers as workers there was another decision from the same court in the home care sector which said that workers who are required to sleep at their workplace are not entitled to be paid for that time. So that was directly contradicting the earlier decision that Uber drivers who were waiting for their riders were entitled to minimum wage during their wait time. I think that’s a really clear example of the different treatment of sectors dominated by women.

GEP – 37:77: What is your overall assessment of the past 18 months of the pandemic and digital labour platforms – what changes do you see?

KH: I think that the line is much more blurred now between what is online work and what is offline work, between who is a gig worker and who isn’t a gig worker. Because of the real rapid rise in remote working a lot of us are subject to aspects of algorithmic management, of surveillance, of digital control. One aspect of the past 18 months is these issues aren’t necessarily restricted to the gig economy anymore. Increasingly it is not making as much sense to talk about the gig economy in this kind of siloed way; ultimately the goal of capital overall is to find ways to chip away at employment protections, so there is a force that is pushing in the direction of all workers becoming gigified.

But we’ve also seen counter-movements gaining in momentum, so I think there is a kind of intensification of these opposing forces: of attempts to continue to erode workers’ rights and also the pushback against that. The pandemic has highlighted the kind of labour that is really important to our communities especially at times of crisis, and that has given force to workers demands and its helped workers demands be heard, and I hope that it has made the general public more conscious of the risks faced by precarious workers.

So I think more and more the conversation is coming down to the role of digital tools, the role of digitalisation in the world of work more broadly. This affects us all and so I hope it serves as an opportunity to build solidarities between sectors which we recognise as gig work and other types of work. And even though there are important limitations to the various court rulings, the various protections that have been introduced, I hope that we will be able to continue to build on those. I think platforms attempts to undermine those positive developments are being seen for what they are and are being anticipated by policy makers.

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