Transform Africa Summit: Keep in mind the gig economy workers

An ICT exhibition during a past Transform Africa Summit in Kigali. (File)

This year’s Labour Day lived up to its billing, celebrating the worker in the region and around the world.

And, for African workers on digital platforms, it perhaps was also an opportunity that the day was observed so close to the 4th Transform Africa Summit coming up next week in Kigali.

I am particularly thinking about the worker in gig economy. Predicated on freelance work, the gig workers find jobs by registering on websites or apps and signing up for what they want to do.

They work under the concept of the zero hour contract, where the employer is not obliged to provide any minimum working hours, while the worker is not obliged to accept any work offered.

This has removed barriers to global freelancing. The freelancers, therefore, work from wherever they like, whenever and for whomever they like.

Uber drivers are some of the most cited of these workers. But there are others less visible but more entrenched in freelance online work – for instance, youth with access to internet engaged in tasks such as transcription, photo editing, data entry and, among other gigs, software engineering.

With the falling data costs, deeper penetration of mobile phones and having largely leapfrogged personal computer use in Africa, it is offering respite for many youth who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

The gig economy works both ways, however, empowering digitally savvy entrepreneurs allowing them to source talent instantly from anywhere in the world at competitive rates from a pool of workers, the majority of whom are the youth in Africa and across the world.

Workers’ rights advocates are quick to remind us that “in most countries, only employees are entitled to the protection of employment legislation, such as being protected from unfair dismissal, and receiving minimum basic benefits such as holiday pay, sick leave and minimum working hours.”

Freelancers often don’t get to benefit from such protection and, not least, gig economy workers.

During the forthcoming Transform Africa Summit there will a plenary discussion under the sub-theme, Digital Skills & Jobs: Building a digital workforce for a digital society.

Among the issues to be thrashed out at the plenary will be “opportunities that need to be created to attract the talent and incentivize the local ingenuity.”

The gig workers’ situation should not be forgotten in the discussions. The plenary could draw from a recent three-year study titled, “Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods”, that highlights some of the issues.

The bulk of the workers have been coming online from low- and middle-income countries, of which the research engaged with gig freelancers from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

In addition to the workers describing their work as lacking in adequate benefits, as well as being isolating, unstable, uncertain and taxing, they complained about racism and discrimination.

It notes the case of Kenyan translator who disguises his workstation to be in Australia, and not Nairobi. He is quoted saying, “You have to create a certain identity that is not you. If you want to survive online, you have to do that.”

Along with limited labour protections, the work is also often characterised by low pay.

It is drawing from the above sum of the gig freelancers’ work conditions that, in forums such as the Transform Africa, we need to start having a discussion on how to institute a fair-trade foundation for gig and other digital labour bearing in mind that the work is essentially borderless and global, though also fast becoming localised.

We need to have policies and smart regulations already in place to safeguard the workers’ interests as well as the upstarts being incubated in digital hubs in the region and across the continent.

We could borrow a leaf from analyses such as one oriented to the United Kingdom and released in July last year – The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices – that sought to address widespread deprivation of employment rights in the gig economy in the country.

Industry experts in Africa note the steps already taken citing the Review’s suggestion “that the UK Government should create a new category of worker, the ‘dependent contractor’, that sits between contractors and those in full employment, and brings with it some benefits and wage protections.”

While it goes to show there has been some movement towards ensuring some fair-play in the nascent economic sector that we could learn from, we should also anticipate more of our youth getting employment online.

With this anticipation, recall Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., pledge last year to train 10 million people in Africa in online skills over the next five years in an effort to make them more employable.

With the Transform Africa Summit already establishing itself as a regular event to look forward to under the Smart Africa Initiative, we are on the right track to define the continent’s place in the digital era looking out for the interests of her citizens.

The theme for this year is “Accelerating Africa’s Single Digital Market”.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.


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