Gig economy and rights 

Monday, 22 June 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Uber is in the local news again over worker complaints that the platform is too demanding and pushing them to work outside of local labour laws. The restaurants are also unhappy they are being charged rates as high as 30% for deliveries at a time when they are struggling to survive.

Work is ever-evolving and technology driven economic changes come as a mixed bag for countries with large informal sectors. On one hand, the lack of regulation means the gig economy can plug into and employ informal workers fast but on aspects of customer service, protection, social security and overall accountability, there can be some yawning gaps. 

The spread of emerging technologies is changing organisational structures and employee management practices. With full-time and permanent employment being replaced by part-time and contractual work, there are less associated benefits and security for employees. In Sri Lanka, the divergence from standard forms of employment is reflected in increasing demand for flexible work, often both from employers and employees, and the platformisation of services. 

Much of this will work to dilute established employment standards, as the nature and culture of work is constantly altered, acknowledges an International Labour Organisation report released last year titled the ‘Future of Work’. Changing and diverging youth aspirations are also likely to reconfigure the dominant perceptions around suitable work and working conditions.

The ‘casualisation’ of work and non-standard forms of work are increasing. With the introduction of new technologies, employers are able to forecast and manage their labour needs in real time, as well as remotely. 

The impact of this is likely to be felt most acutely by low-skilled work, where both physical and cognitive tasks are repetitive and do not require extensive human intervention. 

The platformisation of work has far-reaching implications, particularly in terms of restructuring the employer-employee relationship. Though the ‘gig-economy’ offers new job opportunities to part-time and casual workers, it is also likely to reveal new inefficiencies and inequities. There is concern that the platform economy will create new forms of precarious work, eroding workers’ livelihoods and rights in significant ways. 

This is perhaps best seen in the public ire directed at Uber, whose taxi service has been faulted repeatedly for not having a customer service presence in Sri Lanka with even calls for boycott doing the rounds on social media. Modern work environments are affecting collective bargaining practices, especially unionisation. 

The rise of non-standard forms of employment and outsourcing, specifically in the IT and BPO sectors, is making collective organising on the job significantly harder. Further, in the absence of shared working spaces and employers, remote platform workers face multiple difficulties in connecting with other workers within the digital freelancing ecosystem. The report goes onto observe that labour welfare and access to technology gains is going to be shaped by underlying socio-economic conditions and inequities. While technological disruptions and digitisation can work towards levelling the playing field, the existing social inequities are likely to get reproduced or even further entrenched with the spread of new technologies. Women are likely be able to avail new economic opportunities but the gendered division of labour will persist.

Current economic disparities are likely to be reproduced, entrenched and even exacerbated with technological adoption. Skilling gaps and language impediment will pose a challenge for workers in accessing decent work and technology gains. 

Decisive policymaking and action is needed to confront a future where technology may not lead to progress and development for all. Therefore, intervention is needed to shape the future of work so that it may be equitable and inclusive. Many would argue it is already a key challenge for policymakers.