- Fairwork is an action-research project that defines and measures ethical work standards in the gig economy.
- The Fairwork project applies the expertise and experience of the staff at the Oxford Internet Institute and Universities of Cape Town, Manchester, Oxford and the Western Cape.
- On 3rd February, Fairwork published an op-ed exposing the increasingly misleading corporate ethical trade strategy, in response to the ‘Charter of principles for good platform work’ signed by Cabify, Deliveroo, Grab, Postmates and Uber.
What is the objective of the Fairwork project?
The Fairwork project’s objective is to encourage digital labour platforms to be transparent about the kind of work that they provide and to ultimately create better and fairer jobs in the gig economy. We do this by evaluating the working conditions of digital platforms against our five principles of fair work, and rating them on how well (or poorly) they do.
What can we, as consumers, do to support this objective?
Fairwork’s theory of change draws on the understanding that human empathy is a powerful force. Given enough information, many consumers will be intentional about the platforms they choose to interact with. Our yearly ratings give consumers the ability to choose the highest scoring platform operating in a sector, thus contributing to pressure on platforms to improve their working conditions and their scores. In this way, we enable consumers to be workers’ allies in the fight for a fairer gig economy. Beyond individual consumer choices, our scores can help inform the procurement, investment and partnership policies of large organisations. They can serve as a reference for institutions and companies who want to ensure they are supporting fair labour practices.
Are corporations becoming increasingly misleading in their ethical trade strategy?
This kind of corporate strategy isn’t new, and similar tactics have been deployed in many industries. In 2017, Sainsbury’s announced that its own-brand teas would no longer carry the Fairtrade label. Once positioning themselves as the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade products, the supermarket giant said they would be certifying their tea supply chain under a cheaper in-house scheme, ‘Fairly Traded’, which mimicked some of Fairtrade’s key features, but was less accountable to farmers. Sainsbury’s was betting that consumers wouldn’t have the time or inclination to scrutinise the difference.
Sainsbury’s strategy is part of a wider trend of corporate counter-mobilisation that researchers have observed in the world of ethical certification. Corporations are increasingly wise to the fact that, absent meaningful independent regulation, they can make their own rules: asserting ever-greater control over the less powerful actors in their supply chains.
How does Fairwork view the ‘Charter of principles for good platform work’ signed by Cabify, Deliveroo, Grab, Postmates and Uber?
Being familiar with these tactics in other sectors, we were not surprised by the release of the ‘Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work’ by a group of powerful digital labour platforms, or that the Charter bore the seal of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which has a long track record of diluting economic regulation in favour of elite interests.
On first glance, the Charter resembles the Fairwork Foundation’s principles developed and refined over years of consultation with workers and labour researchers. At times, it even copies text directly. At each step, however, the document is a watered-down and inadequate response to the challenges faced by platform workers.
The Charter’s principles are startlingly permissive of practices known to be harmful and unfair. One principle reads, “Where minimum wage thresholds exist, workers classified as employees should earn at least the minimum wage of their jurisdiction, proportional to the time spent actively working.” Across the world, the vast majority of platform workers are not classified as employees. So, with their provisos about who can be entitled to fair pay, platforms are attempting to legitimise their practise of paying wages that can fall dismally short of the legal minimums. Moreover, the specification of ‘time spent actively working’ means that much of the work day goes unpaid. A food delivery driver wearing the company’s logos, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for an order is clearly adding value to the platform. But the time they spend doing so is entirely uncompensated.
Deliveroo recently failed to provide for a driver who had suffered a horrific racially motivated attack at work, saying that he was ‘free to take a few days off’ (without pay). Only 72 hours before that, another Deliveroo and UberEats driver, Takieddine Boudhane, was stabbed to death while working in London. Deliveroo’s indifference to workers’ wellbeing casts their vague pledge to “help protect workers from health and safety risks, and […] endeavour to protect and promote the physical and mental wellbeing of workers”, in an even more superficial light.
Safe in the knowledge that this Charter will not be officially policed, companies have signed on to pledges that they frequently flout. Uber and Deliveroo’s ‘charter of good work’ is nothing but fairwashing.
What does this mean for the future of labour protections in the gig economy?
As ever more jobs become subsumed into the gig economy, we must ensure that the future of work we are hurtling towards is one of fair standards, safe conditions, and decent wages. In light of this Charter’s release, activists and advocates for workers’ interests need to redouble their efforts to expose unfair labour practices, hold platforms accountable, and ultimately shape a fairer future of work.
Every week seems to witness a new tragedy in the gig economy. Gig workers are injured and killed without the platforms that they work for acknowledging or shouldering any responsibility. Progress in decent work standards in the gig economy is certainly to be recognised and celebrated. However, progress is not possible unless it includes workers’ voices. We cannot leave it to companies who profit from undermining conventional labour protections, to define decent work.
For more information, see the Fairwork website.