Career and Jobs

Gig Workers In Times Of Covid

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on the economy, with millions losing their jobs and millions more placed in highly precarious situations. As with so much, however, a new study from the University of Illinois Chicago highlights that the precarious nature of the labor market is largely a continuation of a pre-existing trend rather than something brought about specifically by the pandemic.

The study finds that precarious employment has risen by 9% between 1988 and 2016, with these jobs characterized by job insecurity, irregular hours, and low wages. That’s not to say that Covid-19 hasn’t exacerbated that trend, however, with the notable rise in gig-based delivery drivers an all too visible example.

Gig working during Covid

New research from INSEAD explores what life has been like for gig workers during the pandemic as they grapple with the health risks from the pandemic, the financial uncertainty from the economy, and the mental health challenges by everything together.

The researchers quizzed a wide range of precarious workers, including nannies, tutors, and warehouse staff, as well as a number of platform workers, who made up around 40% of the overall sample. The participants were quizzed both before the first lockdown in March 2020 and then again after lockdown measures had been introduced.

The initial discussions divided the participants into those who thought the pandemic would have a negative impact on their livelihoods, and those who thought they would benefit from it. Suffice to say, the majority fell firmly into the first camp, although even those more optimistic souls would generally have to take on a greater health risk to reap the expected financial rewards.

Meager beginnings

When the workers were first spoken to, their average monthly income was just over €1,750 per month, with around a third of them earning below €1,000 per month. This would place them below the official poverty line in France, which is defined by the European Union as €1,065 per month. This was especially so for bicycle couriers, who brought in an average of just €923 each month.

As with the rest of society, Covid had a profound impact on the lives of the participants, with 56% of them reporting that they had stopped working as a result of the lockdown measures introduced by the French government. Even with state support, they revealed that their income had fallen by 28% on average, which is particularly precarious given the extremely low levels to begin with.

The sudden shock to normal life was especially pronounced among drivers, whose income dried up spectacularly overnight. The clients that remained had understandable concerns around safety, as indeed did the drivers themselves. Even the bicycle couriers, who had been bullish at the outset, saw their income fall by 29% on average.

Put at risk

As expected, the precarious workers were also at considerably more health risk than other workers. Few were able to perform their work remotely, so every day meant putting their own safety, and the safety of their family, at risk. What’s more, there was generally mixed messaging from both the platforms and the government about any sickness protections afforded to any workers who fell ill.

This created an inevitable and painful choice for people between working to put food on the table or taking the safe route for their health and struggling financially. For many of the respondents, there was not really a choice – they simply had to get out there and work.

Suffice to say, this has had a profound and inevitable impact on the mental health of workers, which is a marked contrast to research prior to the pandemic that showed a more positive outlook upon mental health among gig workers. Workers reported high levels of anxiety about their financial future, with government support uncertain at that time.

Without help

Indeed, this sense of isolation was emphasized by the fact that 3 in 4 of the workers spoken to for the research had not received any support from the government by April, whether due to a lack of awareness of the help that was available or the workers not proving eligible for the support afforded to workers.

This is often compounded by the fact that gig work is highly attractive to immigrants and people new to the country, and who are therefore often unfamiliar with government procedures nor the help available to them. They may even lack the language skills to properly understand the support available and how to claim it.

The need for better recognition of the gig economy among policymakers has been identified as a problem for a number of years, and it’s perhaps no surprise that governments initially struggled to provide sufficient support to gig workers during the pandemic. The issue is compounded by the huge variety of gig workers, from highly-qualified consultants to cycle couriers scrabbling from job to job.

What the pandemic has underlined is that workers society appreciates as key is much broader than was previously the case. Indeed, as research from City University London reminds us, these workers are also often underpaid and experience lower job quality than the average worker.

If we are to rebuild a better society after this Covid “reset”, then perhaps ensuring that these key workers receive a better share of the bargain, both in terms of their basic pay and job quality, and also in terms of the safety net that exists to support them, would be a good place to start.

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