Health & Safety

Health & Safety: Are people healthy and safe when pursuing this livelihood? The threats, and occasionally the benefits, that accrue from a health perspective are largely a function of the specific vocation. it depends where the work happens (at home, at a client’s home, on the road). it depends on whether there’s cash around. That said, physical safety of driving, the mental and emotional tolls of micro work (especially content moderation) are clear.  One way to think about that is whether platforms do more or less than employers to mitigate risks through insurance, caps on hours worked, etc, or they shift the burden of safety to workers? 

Find references for this section at the bottom of this page or see the PDF for in-text citations.

This is an element where very little translates across different platform livelihoods. The threats, and occasionally the benefits, that accrue from a health perspective are largely a function of the vocation. Here are three illustrative contrasts about risks, where context and vocation are everything. 

It depends where the work happens. For example, in freelancing and microwork, working from home, often anonymously, can be perceived as relatively safe, perhaps particularly for women (McAdam, Crowley, and Harrison 2020). Other types of platform work, such as domestic help, are place-based, and may expose people, particularly women, to risks on early-morning commutes (Hunt et al. 2019), in uncomfortable and unprotected domestic situations (Aneja and Sridhar 2019), and to sexual harassment (Garcia et al. 2020; Kiarie, Singh, and Obiko 2020).

It depends on whether there’s cash around. One study argues that digital payments reduce the need for drivers in Indonesia to carry cash, and therefore reduce risk (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020), whereas drivers in South Africa became unsafe when cash option was introduced (Geitung 2017). Small retail merchants engaged in social commerce in Kenya (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019) still operate in situations where the platform transaction is carried out in cash, a mode that feels risky.

It depends on how much risk the platform assumes. Contrasting platform driving with informal taxis, one study suggests that South African ride-hailing platforms provide accident and emergency medical insurance, making for a safer driving environment (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020). Another study of drivers in China notes that drivers don’t have these things (J. Y. Chen 2018)

That said, there are two ways in which clear health risks have been identified. The first is around the physical safety of driving, which impacts both delivery and ride-hailing platform livelihoods. Motorcycle taxis in Kenya are not very safe (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020). Drivers in China report cutting corners, speeding, and ignoring traffic laws, in order to meet the deadlines imposed by the algorithm (J. Y. Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020; B. Chen et al. 2020). Drivers in Indonesia report stress and exhaustion from riding long hours in traffic (Nastiti 2017). Drivers in South Africa don’t know where their ride will take them until they accept the fare, often exposing them to neighborhoods they perceive as risky (Geitung 2017). Indeed, in South Africa the risks don’t just come from carrying cash or speeding through red lights; it can come from the threat of physical violence from traditional taxi drivers, too. The considerable strife between platform drivers and taxi drivers in the country have been documented (Selabe 2017; Mare, Chiumbu, and Mpofu 2020; Geitung 2017).

The second clear risk is around the mental and emotional tolls of platform work. In microwork, this can include the harmful effects of watching pornography and violent content, if one is a content moderator (Gray and Suri 2019), and/or the grind of long hours and stress taking a physical toll on sleep (Anwar and Graham 2020; Wood et al. 2019). That said, other studies suggest that health risks don’t appear prominently in the minds of platform workers (Muhindi 2019).

In general, it is difficult to disaggregate the risks associated with this type of work in general from the specific risks of doing this kind of work as facilitated and managed via a platform. What policymakers and the development community may have to look for is ways in which the particular affordances and constraints of platform work either reduce or accentuate the baseline levels of risk evident in each sector. One way to think about that is whether platforms do more or less than employers to mitigate risks, either through insurance, caps on hours worked, etc. or, as Gupta (2020) puts it, do they shift the burden of safety to workers? As an illustration, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, some ride-hailing platforms provided personal protective equipment to their drivers, while others did not (Krishna 2020; Fairwork Project 2020). One could look at the relationships between the platform, the individuals, and the vendors plying livelihoods upon it through moments like this, and there’s no hard and fast assessment that would suggest that platform work is more or less safe than other types of work. It really depends on the context, the regulatory environment, and the choices platforms make. The opportunities for risks to be amplified or shifted to workers is discernible. It’s why groups like Fairwork are pressuring platforms to take more responsibility for the health and safety of their workers.


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