First ever research into how the app-based gig economy works in poorer countries

12 November 2019

In rich countries the gig economy is seen as an attack on workers’ rights and conditions.

But in middle income countries like South Africa and Kenya it can be an improvement on subsistence farming, unemployment or even more informal employment.

So the UK-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has done the first ever big study to see what female gig economy workers think about their conditions.

While app-based gig work is a better option than other opportunities realistically available, the women surveyed still hope to find jobs with predictable hours, a stable income and benefits such as maternity leave.

Fewer than one in five South African domestic workers labouring in the gig economy live in households that can afford basic needs such as housing, food, education and clothing, ODI has found.

The gig economy links clients and workers through digital platforms. Workers take on individual ‘gigs’ without any guarantee of further employment or entitlement to social and labour protections.

The report, Women in the gig economy: Paid work, care and flexibility in Kenya and South Africa, (published 13 November) finds that while gig economy companies claim their platforms offer women flexible work which allows them to earn money while managing caring responsibilities, the reality is less clear-cut.

In South Africa, the research focused on domestic gig workers, providing cleaning and other household services to households via Uber-style apps. Domestic work, whether carried out through traditional means or gig platforms, is historically undervalued in South Africa and elsewhere.

Our research finds that not only do gig domestic workers typically earn less than a ‘living wage’ – estimated to be at least ZAR 4,125 monthly – but that this income also tends to vary every week, depending on client bookings.

The research team engaged with approximately 700 workers using gig platforms in South Africa and Kenya over the course of two years and analysed data from a leading platform in South Africa to find out exactly how their work fitted in with the rest of their lives.

They found that while many women did find gig work offered more flexibility than other paid work, most would much prefer the security of a full-time job. And while workers tended to value the role of platform companies in helping them find work, they nonetheless encountered challenges that included unpredictable schedules and incomes, a lack of employer-provided social protections such as sick leave or maternity leave, and difficulties juggling childcare and paid work.

Report author Abigail Hunt, research fellow at ODI, said: “Our research makes clear that while platforms regularly tout gig work as providing flexibility and choice, in reality it is far from ideal for women in South Africa.

“They still face significant challenges to balance work with childcare. Gig workers tended to engage in other forms of paid work alongside platform work with more than half (52%) of survey respondents reporting an additional job or business – including with other apps.

“This clearly shows that while gig work offers the possibility to earn an income – and most workers reported that it offered better opportunities then they would find elsewhere – gig work does not provide enough to survive on. And despite claims the gig economy offers freedom and flexibility, most of the workers we heard from would prefer stable, full-time employment.

“Platform companies and policymakers both have a responsibility to not only understand better how this new model of employment affects workers but they should also be working much harder to establish labour rights and protections in line with national legislation.”

The report makes a series of recommendations for policymakers and platform companies including:

  • Ensuring gig workers can earn a secure and stable income through platform work by making sure earnings are fair and in line with living costs, and supporting worker access to social protection.
  • Supporting access to comprehensive care services – notably childcare - to support women to engage in paid work
  • Making sure workers can have greater control over their own working schedules.

Ends

Notes to editors:

  • The report, Women in the gig economy: Paid work, care and flexibility in Kenya and South Africa, will be published on Wednesday November 13.
  • 700 workers participated and the ODI analysed weekly data from South Africa-based domestic worker gig platform SweepSouth for a two-year period.

For more information, a copy of the report, or to arrange an interview please contact Miles Barter on [email protected]  or call +44 (0)7808 791265.