The gig economy, tech and the future of work - a missing paradox in the electoral promises discussion

In this filepicture, the eThekwini Municipality launches the Scooter Empowerment initiative, where they train the young to drive motorbikes and scooters to help create employment opportunities for young people in the city as they can apply for delivery jobs like Uber Eats, Mr D or even deliver groceries and medication for people. Picture:Tumi Pakkies/IndependentNewspapers

In this filepicture, the eThekwini Municipality launches the Scooter Empowerment initiative, where they train the young to drive motorbikes and scooters to help create employment opportunities for young people in the city as they can apply for delivery jobs like Uber Eats, Mr D or even deliver groceries and medication for people. Picture:Tumi Pakkies/IndependentNewspapers

Published May 10, 2024


By Vhatuka Mbelengwa

The recent debates on a myriad of election promises for jobs and youth employment are missing the point of the role of new technology. The world of work is changing and has created new jobs and reconfigured others through technological innovation.

Covid-19 has accelerated technology adoption and new flexible work arrangements managed by Artificial intelligence and AI-assisted algorithmic management. These new forms of work are defining the future of work, and political parties are failing to grasp them.

As a result of the recent boom in technology across industries, the future of the labour market is also in doubt if it is not properly regulated. At worst, a disruptive tech-based work environment with individualised basic conditions of employment as witnessed in the e-hailing sector kills collective bargaining enshrined in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) labour standards and our national labour laws.

The e-hailing and food delivery industries, collectively called the gig economy, have introduced us to a new way of working that inhibits the organising of work and creates underemployment, as companies use digital technologies that circumvent local rules.

The new work order, ostensibly promoting freedom and self-employment, is causing increased worker insecurity, undermining worker rights, and dramatically increasing inequality between a small group of wealthy owners and a greater number of precarious workers.

Through these technologies, companies are developing new, digitally enabled systems of control to comprehensively manage workforces that are threatening to collapse the social dialogue approach which is the traditional tripartite engagement in South Africa.

With the lessons learned from the e-hailing sector, we at Shared Economy Affiliates (SEA) have entered the space of a supply chain dedicated to becoming pioneering logistics by introducing grassroots community-based initiatives and advanced methods of engagement to expand our platforms, allowing clients to access new markets seamlessly.

However, as experienced in recent years our ability to become impactful organisations is hindered by a complete lack of support by the government of local participants. This results in many South African-founded organisations failing as unregulated global players deploy anticompetitive tactics monopolising industry.

My responsibility as a citizen and participation in this hard-earned democratic process includes determining which party to vote for.

Since there is currently no deliberate dialogue being conducted to advance these concerns, I find myself unable to identify with any party. As election day quickly approaches, we may feel disappointed and betrayed by the current government for failing to address these issues.

The vast number of new political formations has thus far, in my opinion, failed to deliver a futuristic vision, although they claim to represent the interest of the youth.

Our transformation is embedded in our developmental undertakings and not political promises thus demanding the emergence of a party and leadership that is anchored on development and not corrective process and petty politics.

Having taken note of many political parties promising us vast infrastructure development and to the extent of technology all that is referenced is increased Wi-Fi connectivity.

This shallow commitment to technological infrastructure makes it evident that the impact technology has in transforming nations that are serious about improving the circumstances of their people has not been correctly understood.

It is worth considering that e-hailing platforms and care work by companies like Sweep South has shown us that the first adopters are your typical labourers in low skilled work and the vast number of transactions and opportunities being curated by these platforms which we are unable to quantify as a country, should be a critical point of concerns and no one is speaking to this segment.

The challenges and opportunities are plentiful, however, should we see an emergence of transformative solutions we need to establish a policy position as a country that seeks to regulate the industry.

The world is changing and private sector organisations that have long thrived on exploitative practices have created new platforms to exploit labour, and with the absence of regulation, this will deepen further our social inequities.

It is my view that the current levels of unidentified exploitative labour practices far exceed those experienced under apartheid because it’s hidden in technology. Should we fail to confront and prepare a decent framework to protect gig workers and the gig economy, we are risking the collapse of our social order.

The absence of good governance will increase crime and misdiagnosed incidents of violence defined as xenophobic attacks. The reality is that undocumented migrants are the most exploited in the sector and we need to rapidly reinforce the Department of Labour to be able to have industry oversight.

In essence, the status quo demands we regulate to protect participants that offer products and services using their own assets from what can be appreciated as artificial intelligence and algorithmic enslavement with no platform to hold organisations and individuals to account.

With the barriers to entry being low and minimum requirements being attainable for many, this will continue to attract opportunity-seeking individuals.

As tech giants continue to reinvent themselves and our process of governance remains outdated and lacks agility, it will render us defenceless and open to exploitation.

It is pertinent that we are engaged as gig economy participants for our critical needs to be addressed, allowing other industries to begin preparing for the pending tech-based disruption making its way to every job.

The 4th industrial revolution is highly undefined, however, it presents an opportunity to define outcomes which speaks to our social needs, the aim should ensure that technology aids us in creating opportunities and supportive processes and not replacing workers.

This will empower us to give guidance as to how global and local tech-based companies must behave within SA.

Political parties have the responsibility to provide political will and policy directives to prevent hindrances in deploying instruments for change in this sector.

The questions that need to be answered are which party is willing to commit itself to a position and transformative process immediately that will be acted upon within the first 100 days?

Is the gig economy regulatory framework and policy development designed to ensure local participants can participate and not be destroyed by global big-budget companies?

What immediate steps are needed to arrest the deepening crisis within the gig economy and transportation sector within the first 100 days?

* Vhathuka Mbelengwa is a gig economy activist and founder of the Private Public Transport Association and Shared Economy Affiliates. He is an active citizen and the national e-hailing spokesperson.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of IOL or Independent Media.