Experts urge social protection for gig workers amidst growing digital economy

The rise of gig work makes it important that workers be given social protection since they may not have access to pensions, health insurance or unemployment benefits.
Published September 28, 2023

Till the world comes up with a perfect definition for gig work, experts at the Asia-Pacific Social Protection Week organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), between September 26-28 in Manila, Philippines, were of the opinion that it would do well to take care of gig workers. Not only it is the smart thing to do; they were sure it was the right thing to do.

From delivering food (think Foodpanda), to driving you around (like Careem), to working remotely from your home in Karachi and providing a service in another part of the world, gig workers, referred to variously as “platform workers” or “digital gig workers” are different from traditional informal workers due to their reliance on digital platforms.

The rise of gig work makes it important that workers be given social protection since they may not have access to traditional forms of social protection like pensions, health insurance or unemployment benefits as was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Because of the nature of the beast — informal and flexible, providing opportunities as well as challenges, it may be difficult to design a one-size-fits-all mechanism for protecting the gig workers.

And yet, as pointed out by Yesim Elhan-Kayalar, adviser to ADB’s Economic Research and Development Impact Department, many platforms were looking for protection mechanisms that emulate the formal work because it makes smart economic sense and is financially sustainable.

She further said these social safety measures are not just demanded by workers but often come from consumers who will refuse to get the service if the workers are treated unfairly.

Some companies are already doing it. For example, Grab, Southeast Asia’s leading superapp (combining multiple services into one platform).

Brendan Chai, head of regional public affairs and policy, at Grab Singapore, talked about the six guiding principles that they follow to keep their workers (they call them their partners) happy. These include flexibility in work (the reason why most people joined in the first place); protection in case of work-related injury, paying for medical expenses and compensation for disability; sustainable earning by keeping themselves abreast with the market and what regular taxi and other ride-hailing drivers are earning or that they earn at least the rate of local minimum wage; ensuring they save in the long term. In addition, said Chai, they believe in workers’ representation so they can communicate their concerns and engage with the company officials. And because they know this job is just a “stepping stone” they have started a Grab academy where the drivers can learn skills in digital literacy and data analytics to improve their livelihood and job prospects.

“If we don’t keep our workers happy, they will go elsewhere,” Chai pointed out, but added it would help if there was some government oversight when mechanisms for social protection are put in place. A complete policy followed by legislation around gig work would be a good first step, he said.

One of the biggest drivers for why Gen X in Pakistan are turning to “online portals, learning a few skills and putting themselves up for grabs as freelancers at different marketplaces because the government has been unable to create formal jobs. In addition, there is this attraction of earning in dollars,” said Hisham Sarwar, CEO of Infomist Services. Still there is room to take the gig economy to scale by providing high-speed internet penetration across the length and breadth of Pakistan, Sarwar added.

And when that happens, Pakistan should be ready with a plan to protect this young and robust workforce from being exploited.

Header photo by @Laura_WIEGO/X