The gig economy is generally characterised by flexible, temporary or freelance jobs as opposed to permanent, full-time work. There is a popular perception that gig work is added on top of another job, whether part-time or full-time. During the pandemic, there was a rise in gig work, as it acted as a supplement to full-time work. In other words, the gig economy provided opportunities to generate income for when circumstances did not accommodate traditional full-time, full-year employment. Stewart and Stanford (2017) highlight that most gig workers are not engaged in gig work on a full-time basis, and often rely on gig work as a supplement for other incomes. The general idea surrounding gig work, therefore, is that someone may be engaged in full-time work but also provide services in the gig economy. While gig employment, more closely resembles part time employment, many workers rely on gig work not as a primary source of income, but as a supplement to existing income.
A recent study of gig economy activity in Sri Lanka has shown that although gig work is generally perceived as being part-time work, in reality, most gig workers are actually working de facto full-time.
CSF conducted a survey of gig workers in the Western Province in Sri Lanka, majority of whom engaged in location-based gig work such as ride-hailing/ride-sharing and delivery. Interestingly, the survey revealed that most, if not a majority of gig workers interviewed, engaged in such work on a full-time basis (i.e., at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week). The survey also revealed that more than half of all workers interviewed, did not engage in extra work for additional income. This indicated that many workers relied on gig work as a primary source of income. In this context, this blog article explores the challenges faced by gig workers, whose number of hours worked and total earnings have fluctuated as a result of two key shifts in the Sri Lankan economy over the past three years; (1) the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as (2) the economic crisis.
Globally, gig workers were amongst the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sri Lanka, gig economy activity was shaped by the pandemic. For those engaged in ride hailing/ride-sharing services like Uber and Pick Me (to name a few) in Sri Lanka, pandemic-induced restrictions on mobility resulted in, as some workers pointed out, a reduction in the number of hours worked, and thus a decline in total earnings during the pandemic. For those in the delivery segment, however, in depth interviews with gig workers, conducted by CSF, revealed that there was in fact an increase in the number of orders for food and grocery items via platform apps, as demand for such services grew during the pandemic. Delivery workers thus highlighted that this resulted in an increase in their overall earnings.
While the impact of the pandemic on ride-hailing/ride-sharing and delivery has been diverse, the impact of the economic crisis on both has been devastating. A recurrent concern in many of the in depth interviews conducted with gig workers, was high fuel costs and low/no fuel availability. This resulted in many drivers and riders being left idle, and unable to accept any hires/deliveries, especially long-distance trips. At the peak of the crisis, many drivers of Uber Sri Lanka, for instance, had to stop driving on the platform. While platforms increased fares to offset both the low demand for services via the platform and high fuel prices, high prices on the platform also impacted consumer demand and reduced the number of orders and hires via the apps, as consumers moved away from travelling, ordering food/other commodities through existing platforms. The pandemic and the economic crisis have thus contributed to making gig work even more precarious, with many workers unable to, at times, make a sufficient living and left idle in fuel queues despite working ‘full-time’.
While the survey results revealed that gig work is most appealing for the flexibility it affords workers, both the pandemic as well as the economic crisis highlighted how they remain unprotected and vulnerable to external shocks in the market. Despite the level of control exerted over these workers by the platform companies, i.e., by way of determining the rates charged, deactivation of workers etc. the reluctance to recognize them as ‘employees’ despite working full-time, has also made gig work exploitative, with very little worker protection. Some of the workers interviewed, highlighted that they have had to think about alternative sources of income, and in some cases even leave the platform temporarily or permanently to pursue a different job, in order to maintain a livelihood that is less volatile.
In conclusion, despite the reputation gig work as attracted as being largely part-time work used to supplement existing income, the survey of drivers and riders in ride-hailing/ride-sharing and delivery platforms in Sri Lanka, has revealed that many workers actually work on the platform full-time. The pandemic and economic crisis has affected these full-time workers to the extent that many were often left idle, with little to no hires and orders during the height of the pandemic and the crisis, despite engaging with the platform full-time. Platform companies typically refuse to acknowledge such workers as ‘employees’ of the platform company and resulting low worker protection. There is certainly a debate to be had around the future of social protection in an era of growing platform-based gig work.
Nimaya Dahanayake is a Junior Researcher as CSF, and was part of a team that conducted a study for an international organization on the expansion of platform-based gig work in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. This is the first in a series of short articles that will explore key findings and themes emerging from this study.
Cover photo (c) Tashiya de Mel, from https://restofworld.org/2021/global-gig-workers-tuktuk-driver-srilanka/