In the time of the coronavirus, precarious workers need more protection than everMarch 14, 2020
By Rachel Tan
As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus with drastic measures like nationwide lockdowns, mass quarantines, and airport and business closures, one group of workers is disproportionately facing a bigger brunt of the consequent economic fallout than others. These workers are part of the ‘precariat’, who traditionally work in contractual, temporary, low-skilled, and part-time jobs.
While the word ‘precariat’ has only started emerging in scholarly discussions and the media over the past decade, the situation faced by this group of people has existed for much longer. Traditionally, these are people in contractual, temporary, low-skilled, and part-time jobs who are subject to unstable income flows, sporadic work, little opportunity for career progression, and a lack of employee benefits like health insurance and termination compensation. As a result, they have meagre savings, can’t afford to pay the bills, and are prone to poverty traps in the event of a shock. This lack of financial and job security keeps them stuck in a vicious cycle of social immobility, marginalization, and lack of self-esteem.
The recent emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has shone the spotlight on the plight of the precariat. This group of workers now faces even greater pressures as quarantines, mandatory unpaid leave, and pay cuts are being enforced around the world as a response to the pandemic. In countries where paid sick leave is not a standard employee benefit, concerns are mounting over workers who continue showing up at work even when they are unwell in order to keep their pay and jobs. Additionally, the cost of testing and seeking treatment may prove a deterrent to precarious workers in getting medical treatment, increasing the risk of widespread virus transmission. In these times, a lack of social and economic protection for precarious workers may prove to have devastating consequences due to its implications on public health and safety.
Forward-looking businesses have begun acknowledging the need to protect their most vulnerable workers during this time. Last week, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Microsoft announced that they would continue paying their hourly and subcontracted workers their regular pay despite this period of reduced service needs and stay home notices. Uber and Lyft said that drivers or delivery people who have Covid-19 or who are required to self-isolate will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days while their account is on hold, marking a concession in their long-time pushback against recognizing their gig workers as formal employees. Amazon announced that it would give its employees unlimited unpaid time off until the end of March, and set up a US$25m fund to support independent delivery service partners and their drivers, as well as seasonal employees under financial distress.
However, pressure continues to mount on businesses to put in place greater protections for their contract workers that extend beyond the timeframe of the pandemic. For businesses, there is a growing imperative to seriously consider the welfare of their most vulnerable workers especially given the potential consequences that unpaid sick leave, lack of health insurance, and per-hour wages on can have on driving up transmission rates. Furthermore, as companies become increasingly reliant on contract and freelance work in order to keep their businesses agile in this digital age, the need for long-term protections and rights for such workers will only continue to grow.
Eden proposes several steps that businesses can take in order to protect its precarious workers in the long-term, even beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Prepare to recognize gig workers as ‘employees’ instead of ‘independent contractors’ In 2019, California passed a landmark bill allowing gig workers to be fully recognized as employees rather than independent contractors. While the passage of this bill was not met with much enthusiasm from companies that rely largely on such workers, more workers will now become entitled to unemployment insurance, healthcare subsidies, paid parental leave, overtime pay, and a guaranteed minimum wage. Elsewhere, governments are also beginning to experiment with classifying these workers into a third category (somewhere between ‘employee’ and ‘independent contractor’) to ensure that they also receive protections and benefits from their contractors or employers. Spain, Canada, Italy, and South Korea all already have such an in-between category, to varying degrees of success.What this means for employers is that there is a need to anticipate the need to include gig workers in traditional employee-only policies. In Singapore, certain categories of self-employed persons can receive subsidies from the government on courses to allow them to upgrade their skills at a low cost and subsequently command a higher price for their services. This initiative could be extended to gig workers by employers to also provide them the opportunity to move to higher-skilled jobs within the organisation. In doing so, businesses can help speed up the regulatory process of legalizing benefits for gig workers, as less time is lost on waiting for the government to re-define a new category of employment for these workers before new rights and benefits can be established.
- Establish greater transparency in contractual arrangements
Workers in the gig economy often face issues identifying who they can turn to in event of a disagreement, because clients and intermediaries may interact jointly with the worker in numerous ways such that there is no clear “employer” or “client”. Gig workers also often face the problem of inconsistent work; if the demand for gig workers falls, these workers do not receive jobs and wages, which undercuts their job and income security.In order to empower these workers, employers need to provide clear directives on the various responsibilities of their workers and how they can seek help for issues regarding renumeration and benefits, technical issues, and work schedules. Employers can benefit from being more transparent with how workers are paid. HackerOne, for example, is a gig-worker platform that the sets the pay upfront for each piece of work done by the programmers they employ. This gives workers greater income security as they can know with certainty the amount of money they can make from each job without having to account for hidden fees or deductions. Lastly, work schedules that give workers reasonable notice for contract work help them anticipate periods of high and low demand. In the UK, the government may be implementing a “reasonable period of notice” on hourly work and protection from penalty for not accepting last-minute shifts, to tackle problems associated with gig work and workers’ rights.
- Ensure that there are mechanisms in place to prevent overworking and working through illness The ongoing pandemic has revealed the dangers of workers turning up to work even if they are sick, especially for those who have close contact with high volumes of people daily such as drivers or service staff. Even during ‘business-as-usual’ times, overworked or unwell workers pose an increased risk to the business in terms of accidents, errors, and spreading of seasonal contagious illnesses. Consequently, mechanisms need to be established to reduce instances of overworking, such as by offering workers rewards for work quality rather than quantity. Additionally, increased benefits for contract workers such as guaranteed paid sick leave, basic health insurance, and access to mental health resources can ensure that workers are healthier and produce better quality work, while also retaining good workers in a sluggish labour market.Several companies are already experimenting with such benefits for their workers. Etsy, for example, offers access to affordable health insurance for sellers on its platform, while SurveyMonkey has also increased protection and benefits for its workers contracted through third-party vendors, providing them with sponsored medical and dental plans, paid vacation and sick leave, and transportation subsidies.
As the global pandemic continues to unfold, the needs and challenges faced by precarious workers will become even more glaring and pressing. It is worth remembering that for those in precarity among us – waiters working hourly shifts, shelf packers at the hardware store, private-hire drivers, or migrant workers – the continual lack of income, health benefits, and job security can be debilitating. If businesses take action now and start implementing forward-looking policies that can protect their most vulnerable workers through any crisis, the war on the spread of the virus will be won on at least one front.