Taking Action to Improve Gig Work in the Global South

The gig economy, providing work through short-term tasks mediated by digital platforms like Uber and Upwork, is of growing significance. On one estimate, there are 30-40 million such workers in the countries of the global South, with delivery workers particularly proving critical during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While gig work can provide new livelihoods, the nature of work is often problematic: characterised by low pay, unsafe conditions, transfer of risk from platforms to workers, lack of due process in decision-making, and refusal of platforms to recognise worker unions.

To address the precarity and exploitation of much gig work, the Fairwork project was created in 2018, with Prof Richard Heeks of the Global Development Institute as one of the co-investigators and Daniel Arubayi of the Department of Geography subsequently joining as a team member.  Key funders have included the UK Economic and Social Research Council, Canada’s International Development Research Centre, and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development via the GIZ development agency.

Ranking gig economy platforms 

Fairwork seeks to improve pay and conditions in the gig economy, particularly in the global South.  It does this by scoring platforms against five principles of decent gig work: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation.

With two points available for each principle, platforms get a score out of ten each year (see example below of most-recent scores from South Africa), based on triangulated evidence from desk research, worker interviews and the platforms themselves.  Individual and organisational consumers and investors are encouraged to sign up to the Fairwork Pledge; agreeing to only engage with higher-scoring platforms.

Fairwork barchart

Fairwork impact 

These pressures have motivated platforms in many countries to improve pay and conditions.  Examples from locations managed by University of Manchester researchers include:  

  • a guarantee by two South African platforms to only include tasks paying above the living wage
  • translation of contracts into local languages so they could be adequately understood by workers for platforms in Ghana, India and Pakistan
  • localisation of contracts by platforms in Ghana and South Africa so that national rather than foreign law applies
  • workers in Indonesia and South Africa better able to challenge management decisions made by platforms
  • development and promotion of an anti-discrimination policy by platforms in Ghana, India, Pakistan and South Africa
  • agreement to recognise and negotiate with collective worker bodies by platforms in Ghana and South Africa

The Fairwork project is continuing to rate platforms annually, with a growing scope of activity including policy advocacy and provision of resources to support gig workers.  A recent extension has added ten more global South countries, bringing the overall number of Fairwork locations to 40.