COVID-19: Some thrive. Most suffer. Without labor protections and sensitive to swings in demand and supply, Platform workers and sellers are particularly vulnerable to shocks like COVID-19 As we were compiling this initial version of the review, the overall evidence base was sparse. But early studies illustrate how COVID-19 is a mediating force, exacerbating the vulnerabilities experience by many platform workers and sellers.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic killed over a million people and shut down economies around the world. There was considerable concern that those pursuing platform livelihoods, many at the intersection of informality, would be particularly vulnerable to swings in demand for their services, mostly—although not exclusively—negative. A few livelihood segments like delivery, and perhaps E-commerce, seemed to do well, but many other segments, particularly ride hailing and travel and hospitality, greatly suffered.
Some platforms have offered micro-credit and foodstuffs, or appealed to customers for donation or charity to offer financial assistance to platform workers. Some governments offered grants to support the unemployed; however, workers did not qualify either because they lack employment rights or because of their illegal status in the country of residence. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the precariousness of this work and how the workers are regarded or treated; their rights are left at the mercy of platforms. Platforms are adding untested new services, sometimes with new implications for how long jobs can take to complete or what they will pay, which leads to a further deterioration of the quality of the work experience.
As we were compiling this initial version of the review, studies were still coming in and the overall evidence base was likely sparse. There are surely others, and the next iteration of this review will bring more into the synthesis; please alert us if you are aware of a study that should be included here.
That said, early studies illustrate how COVID-19 is a mediating force, intersecting with how workers in various platform livelihoods experience many of the 12 elements. For example, responses include a rare first-person account of the experience of being a delivery driver in South India during the pandemic, with findings that intersect with the Health & Safety and Objectivity & Professionalism elements of this review:
Drawing on self-ethnographic research as a food delivery worker in south India, Shyam Krishna (Royal Holloway University of London) explores the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on gig workers in a Global South context. His insights highlight the heightened risk borne by food delivery workers, the continuation of algorithmic control in spite of the emergency, and the protection gap resulting from a problematic nexus between the state and platforms. (Krishna 2020)
Our survey suggests a majority of gig workers have lost their jobs entirely, while those able to work during lockdown have, on average, lost four-fifths of their income. As a result, many reported that just getting food to eat was their top priority. While platforms have long marketed themselves as facilitators of supplementary income streams, all of this exposes the complete dependency of most workers on their platforms as the basis for their livelihood. Given the control they exercise over the welfare and conditions of their workers, South Africa’s platforms could and must do more to help, and we outline a series of measures they could be undertaking on issues including reduced commissions, loan deferrals, physical protection, healthcare assistance, sick pay, improved communication, and engagement with workers and their representatives. (Fairwork Project 2020)
A team at CGAP also looked at the drop in earnings, in this case, with Gojek drivers in Indonesia. What’s particularly notable here is the way in which individuals pivot out of one kind of service and into another, with the shifts from ride hailing to logistics, all within the Gojek super-app ecosystem.
During this COVID pandemic, his earning drops to about 50%, but people start using GoMart now, so he goes to convenient stores to buy groceries and bring them back to customer’s home…. When he cannot take passengers because of COVID, he switched to package delivery and Grabfood…. In this COVID pandemic, there is government policy to allow drivers to postpone their motorcycle payment until a year later. (Budiman 2020)
Ride hailing in India also suffered, with one researcher arguing that government responses are not sufficient to respond to the health risks, nor to the financial hardships faced by individual drivers (Korreck 2020). However, further discussion of the immediate policy responses to the crisis, vis-à-vis platform livelihoods, are outside the scope of this particular review, which focuses on the experience of the individuals involved.
Budiman, Bido. 2020. “Ride-Hailing: Stories from Gojek and Grab Drivers in Indonesia.” CGAP Background Documents. https://www.findevgateway.org/sites/default/files/users/user331/Financial-Inclusion-Story-of-Ride-Hailing-Stories-from-Gojek-and-Grab-Drivers-in-Indonesia.pdf.
Fairwork Project. 2020. “Gig Workers, Platforms,and Government During Covid-19 in South Africa.” https://fair.work/wp-content/uploads/sites/97/2020/05/Covid19-SA-Report-Final.pdf.
Korreck, Sabrina. 2020. “COVID-19 and India’s Gig Economy: The Case of Ride-Hailing Companies.” India: Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ORF-Issue-Brief-377-Pandemic-Gig.pdf.
Krishna, Shyam. 2020. “The Role of a Gig-Worker during Crisis: Consequences of COVID19 on Food Delivery Workers in South India.” IFIP 9.4 Blog (blog). April 13, 2020. https://ifip94.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-role-of-a-gig-worker-during-crisis-consequences-of-covid19-on-food-deliver-workers-in-south-india/.