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The Gig Economy

Cape Town - Panelists attending a session on the gig, or digital economy, agreed that regulation was needed, but not all argued that this was necessary to protect workers from abuse.

Much has been said recently about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which could equally be called either the gig or digital economy.

During a session at the World Economic Forum on Africa on Thursday, South African Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel said the digital economy is happening and Africa was digitising. This, he added, may not be taking place as fast as we want, or in the areas we expected it to, but it cannot be denied that it is transforming the continent.

The digital economy comes with huge challenges and opportunities, Patel said, pointing out that a report released in South Africa on Thursday said it could cost 3.3 million jobs, but also had the potential, with the right policy mix, to create 4.5 million positions, a net gain of 1.2 million employment opportunities.

While technology has been a disruptor through the ages, aspects we are seeing now, such as artificial intelligence, change the game because it takes some “brain work” and digitises it.

As a result, said Patel, “One has to think anew about the issue of jobs.” Policy makers, business, trade unions, and society at large can shape the gig economy and we need to, in partnership, look at policies that unlock new job opportunities and social plans to transition people to new jobs, including imparting the right skills at all levels.

Worker abuse

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International Director, said the gig economy has the potential to change lives in Africa, and provide good jobs that are dignified. Instead, it is taking us back to Dickensian times, a time when children worked in mines and everyone worked long hours. This, she said, is because there are no policies in place to regulate the new types of employment that stem from the digital economy.

“I don’t have an issue with the technology, I have an issue with governments who have decided to sit back and let the rich owners of technology run away with the benefits.”

Byanyima cited the example of Uber drivers, who work incredibly long hours, for minimal pay, and have no benefits as an area in which policy has failed to adapt. Uber has been taken to court several times over working conditions, and argues that it is not an employer, but rather the provider of a platform that enables disruption, she said.

Alon Lits, Uber’s General Manager for South Africa, however argued that it is possible for digital companies to have a positive benefit, such as Uber drivers who started working for someone else and went onto owning several cars.

As traditional jobs are being shed, it is very important to move towards the future, said Lits. He said the future of work needed to make economic opportunities more accessible, flexible, offer protection, and provide skills.

Technology lowers barriers to entry, and also makes it possible to limit the number of hours worked, said Lits. He added that Uber provides benefits such as accident cover, and also helps its drivers with skills, such as financial literacy.

Lits said regulation was welcome as this would expand the gig economy, which was creating jobs.

Power shift

Olajumoke Adekeye, Founder of The Young Business Agency, said the gig economy was in existence before we had technology: it was evident in “side” gigs students had to support themselves, such as in baking or photographing events on weekends. “They engage in some form of side hustle, as the young people call it, and that is still some form of gig economy.”

What we now have with the advent of technology, is the digital or platform economy, which now creates a different power structure, she said, arguing that technology companies now have more power over workers.

This, said Adekeye, means that we now need to talk about the need for regulation. She also argued that the digital economy is not creating jobs, and is – instead – about introducing new efficiencies into a current marketplace.

The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO’s) Deputy Director-General, Moussa Oumarou, added that an ILO study across five continents found that those who work in the gig economy do not have any benefits.

Oumarou, speaking via a translator, argued that this represents challenges that we have to find solutions to today. He said we need to consider what type of regulation we can implement to protect the rights of the actors in the gig economy, regardless of what titles these workers have.

A platform needed to be created to protect the rights of these workers, and the ILO has a World Commission on the Future of Work, that has made recommendations in relation to the regulation of digital work and online labour, said Oumarou. He did not elaborate on these recommendations.

The digital economy, said Oumarou, is not a panacea, it is not a magic bullet, to the question of employment.