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‘Gig economy’ workers fall on hard times in Singapore and Australia

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SINGAPORE — Nicholas Yeo did not expect such a rocky start to his first year as a full-time freelance photographer. The 26-year-old graduate of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University counted it a blessing that his passion for taking pictures was also his livelihood.

Now he doesn’t feel so lucky. As the new coronavirus swept the globe, he saw more and more work dry up as events were canceled or postponed for health and safety reasons.

In all, Yeo said he has had six projects killed off, costing him the equivalent of around $4,200. “I can hemorrhage for another three months before I call it quits,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review, adding, “I know people up the chain who’ve been though worse.”

Yeo is among scores of workers in the “gig economy,” particularly in the creative industries, who have seen their incomes pared during the pandemic. These workers, who take up freelance jobs in lieu of permanent company positions, are some of the most exposed people in the labor force as economies go into hibernation.

“These workers are often the first ones to be cut during a downturn, and are viewed as more discretionary spending by many companies,” Carlos Castelan, managing director of the Navio Group business consultancy, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

At the same time, most have no safety net to fall back on.

“Unprotected workers, including self-employed, casual and gig workers, are the most critical groups as they do not have access to paid or sick leave mechanisms, and are less protected by conventional social protection mechanisms,” said Patuan Samosir, senior director at the International Trade Union Confederation – Asia Pacific.

With restrictions and lockdowns disrupting business activity across the region, participants in what had been a burgeoning gig economy are tallying up the costs, turning to each other for moral support, and looking to their governments for assistance.


A food delivery cyclist in Sydney: Despite expectations for a surge in online food orders, most gig workers are in a precarious economic position.

  © Getty Images

“I Lost My Gig,” a movement among freelancers that began in Australia and spread to Singapore, has set up an online forum for gig workers to record lost income due to the coronavirus. The combined losses reported by members from the two countries as of early April topped $215 million.

“There’s no opportunity for me to get any other work,” Rebecca Charles, a bartender, posted on the website. She said she has lost more than $1,200.

“Keep your heads high, my friends. We feel your pain. We are all in this together,” posted Mario Garza, a photographer who had work in Australia. He logged over $1,400 in lost income.

Other groups are stepping up as well. Singapore Unbound, which represents writers, created a relief fund to help members who are in dire straits as a result of canceled book events, plays and movie productions. The fund started out with $2,000 and offers grants of $200, using resources originally intended for writing fellowships.

“Singapore Unbound has decided to postpone this year’s writing fellowships to Southeast Asia, and to commit the funds instead to aid Singaporean writers badly affected by the shutdowns,” the group said on its website.

Labor statistics from Singapore showed that in 2018, close to one-tenth of all working residents in the city-state were self-employed. In Australia, a study of the gig economy by the state government of Victoria concluded that about one-twelfth of all employment in the country is gig work.

Not all gig workers are equal, however, and those who offer online services may fare better than freelancers with incomes tied to events, said Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“There’s likely to be a surge in demand for food delivery workers, too, as people are not patronizing restaurants as much,” Figueroa told the Nikkei Asian Review.

But Walter Theseira, an associate professor of economics at Singapore University of Social Sciences, believes even independent workers on food-delivery and ride-hailing platforms like Grab and Gojek are vulnerable.

“A lot of the platforms are able to sustain the wages that they do now because they’re sustained by cheap financing,” he said. “There is some concern about whether that financing is going to dry up.”


A nearly empty Siloso beach on the island of Sentosa, off Singapore, on April 4: As the economic goes into hibernation, self-employed workers stand to receive about $700 a month from the government for nine months.

  © Getty Images

While some companies may eliminate freelance jobs to cut costs, Emily Weisgrau, president of business consultancy Weiswood Strategies, warned this may be a double-edged sword, with those companies unable to lure back temporary workers when the situation returns to normal.

“Now is actually the time for businesses to retain freelancers, who can keep work moving without the additional financial burdens like health insurance and retirement benefits that employees expect,” Weisgrau said.

Governments across the region have rushed to deliver billions of dollars in aid to tide workers over during the coronavirus slowdown.

In Australia, the state of Victoria earmarked more than $300 million for displaced workers. In Singapore, self-employed workers stand to receive about $700 a month from the government for nine months.

Lower-to-middle-income residents in the city-state who face job or income losses can also apply to a temporary relief fund for help with living expenses. Those approved receive a one-time cash payment of about $350.

Freelancers like Yeo are hoping for an end to the pandemic and a return to normalcy. “Commercial gigs have been good, until the virus happened,” he said.

For now, he has applied for government assistance. “Never in my life would I have imagined I would want to queue to meet social services to beg for a handout,” Yeo said.

Additional reporting by Peter Guest.



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Workers pay price as gig economy avoids regulations, inquiry finds

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Despite being commissioned by the Victorian government, Ms James found the federal government was best placed to drive change, given its responsibility for the national system of workplace laws.

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She recommended the development of a code of conduct to better protect on-demand workers, the removal of barriers to collective bargaining, and a one-stop-shop support agency to help workers when disputes arise.

If the federal government would not lead, Victoria should work with other states to drive legislative changes to offer greater fairness for platform workers, she said.

While he would not comment specifically on the recommendations, state Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said there was a clear need for laws to be tightened to support gig workers.

“The gig economy is relied upon by millions of consumers and workers across the country, but there are holes when it comes to industrial relations that put workers’ rights to fair pay and conditions at risk,” he said.

Previously, Mr Pallas had indicated the state could act alone to bolster protections for gig economy workers.

On-demand workers are more likely to be young, urban and male. People who speak a language other than English at home are 1.5 times more likely to be platform workers.

An estimated 40 per cent of on-demand workers surveyed as part of the inquiry were not even aware of their rates of pay.

“Platforms have been deliberate in framing their arrangements with workers,” Ms James found.

“This enables platforms to avoid the operation of close and detailed labour regulation while other businesses are carrying the costs of complying with those requirements.”

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Those pressures are becoming more acute as the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic tear through every aspect of society, Ms James told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

“What we have is a large number of people in need of income, looking for work in a labour market which has now become even more competitive,” she said.

“So the gig economy has provided invaluable access to work for people, but also under terms and conditions that are not regulated. And so what we have is vulnerable people with very little leverage in the labour market really, with little or no capacity to have a say in what the arrangements are in place in order to access this work.”

Zaheer Qazi spent three years working for Uber and Deliveroo while he completed his degree in Melbourne. During that time he was also the national welfare officer for the Council of International Students Australia.

Mr Qazi said he had been told horror stories about international students working for food delivery sites being attacked but having little recourse to workplace support or compensation.

“People are feeling more fearful with COVID,” he said. “They can’t afford to lose work and these companies know it.”

Zaheer Qazi says "fearful" gig workers "can't afford to lose work and these companies know it".

Zaheer Qazi says “fearful” gig workers “can’t afford to lose work and these companies know it”.Credit:Joe Armao

Freelancer.com chief executive Matt Barrie said while other platforms limited the amount of pay workers received, his company “liberates workers”.

“The gig economy is not one homogenous industry with a uniform business model,” he said.

“Any legislation must be cognisant of that and should be at the federal level, not the state level.”

Airtasker chief executive Tim Fung said the gig economy comprised a number of different platform types. “The needs of workers on each of these different platforms should be prioritised when considering how best to apply a regulatory framework.”

A Deliveroo spokeswoman declined to comment. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald also approached Uber for comment but did not receive a response before deadline.

A spokesman for Attorney-General Christian Porter said given Mr Porter had not seen the report, he could not comment on its findings or recommendations.

In January, Mr Porter said: “The evolution of the gig economy also presents challenges which the government is committed to addressing.”

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GIG Car Share Chooses the Ridecell Platform for its Expansion into Seattle | News

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SAN FRANCISCO, July 8, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Ridecell Inc., the leading platform provider for shared mobility operators, today announced that GIG Car Share, powered by AAA Northern California, will use the Ridecell High-yield Mobility Platform for its expansion to Seattle. Gig already uses Ridecell for its other operating cities, including Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Ridecell platform enables Gig to operate its fleet efficiently while giving members a frictionless experience, including quick reservation on the Gig app plus keyless entry and Gig free parking locator within the app. Ridecell also keeps track of cars for easy service, cleaning and return, minimizing downtime and maximizing profitability.

Gig Seattle will begin with 250 brand new Toyota Prius XLE hybrid cars that seat five comfortably and provide outstanding fuel efficiency. The Ridecell platform provides Gig with end-to-end automation, instant driver verification, payment processing, on-demand scheduling, and custom analytics. In addition, the platform tracks vehicle locations to ensure safety and speedy service when needed.

“Gig has grown to be the largest* free-floating car sharing service in the country, despite the tough times most transportation services are facing,” said Aarjav Trivedi, CEO of Ridecell. “Gig’s great customer service orientation combined with our platform, has helped the company continue to succeed where other companies have faltered. We’re proud to continue our partnership with them as they enter the Seattle market.”

Ridecell offers the world’s only end-to-end platform for all types of mobility, including car sharing, ridehailing, and short-term vehicle subscriptions. The platform is designed to create high-yield mobility businesses for greater profitability. For more information, visit www.ridecell.com

About Ridecell

Ridecell helps companies build and operate profitable mobility businesses. With the company’s High-yield Mobility™ SaaS toolkit of intelligent software, business services, and ecosystem partners, Ridecell customers maximize three key profit drivers: customer experience, fleet utilization, and operational efficiency.

Founded in 2009, today, Ridecell powers some of the most successful mobility services in cities across Europe and North America. These services include ZITY from Ferrovial and Groupe Renault, Gig Car Share from AAA Northern California, and Blu Smart EV ride sharing service.

Ridecell is headquartered in San Francisco, California, with more than 170 employees in offices across the globe.

About GIG Car Share
GIG Car Share, a service from AAA Northern California, is the largest free-floating car share in the nation.* In three years, Gig has grown to more than 65,000 members and operates more than 1,000 cars across Northern California (Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento) and Seattle, Washington. The service launched in 2017 as the first venture from A3Ventures, AAA’s innovation lab based in Berkeley, Calif. Learn more at gigcarshare.com.

*Based on the size of its fleet as of 6/1/2020

Media Contact:
Jane Gideon
Tel: 415-682-9292
Email: press@ridecell.com

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Gig workers say pay decided by algorithm is unfair

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Same-day delivery has been a growing part of Target’s business during the pandemic. But Target employees don’t do most of the work picking up merchandise from stores and delivering it to customers’ homes. Instead, it’s mostly handled by gig workers hired through a platform called Shipt.

This week, some of them are protesting its new pay structure. Instead of being paid a set rate per order, an algorithm will weigh how busy a store is, how bad street traffic is and other factors to set the pay for an order.

Algorithms are foundational to how gig platforms like Uber or Instacart do business. Most users are familiar with surge pricing, where prices vary depending on demand. But that’s just part of a complex web of algorithms that affect everything from which jobs a gig worker is offered to how much they get paid for them.

“I really compare it to like the wizard behind the curtain in ‘Wizard of Oz,’” said Carlos Ramos, a ride-hailing driver in San Diego for the past three years. “Stuff is happening back there, and you have no idea what’s going on.”

Ramos has noticed some patterns: When he first logs on, he seems to be offered a lot of shorter, less lucrative rides until he decides to call it a day and head home.

“And then I’ll get a request for a hundred-mile trip in the other direction,” he said. “This has happened time and time again.”

He thinks it’s because of Lyft’s algorithm, but he can’t be sure because companies keep their software secret.

“We have no idea,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. “Everything that we know about the algorithms is based on what workers tell us they experience.”

Dubal has surveyed hundreds of gig workers to tease out how the algorithms work, and she’s concluded they’re designed to keep workers logged on for as little pay as possible.

“They therefore cannot predict their income on any given day or any given shift,” she said.

These systems cause financial uncertainty that puts workers at a disadvantage, said Kate Crawford, the co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University.

“These algorithmic systems are essentially increasing the power asymmetry between workers and employers to quite an extreme degree,” she said.

While each platform has unique algorithms, they all have a common objective, she said: to maximize profits, often at the expense of workers.

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