Webinar: Rethinking social protection and social contracts in the context of the gig economy

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Debates surround the nature of the social contract and its renegotiation, particularly in developing contexts with large informal economies. Alongside these discussions, the gig economy’s rise has seen a significant increase in people working on platforms like Uber, Sweepsouth, and Upwork, where individuals take on short-term gigs as independent contractors. While hailed as an opportunity for marginalised groups like young people and migrants to participate in the economy, gig work also highlights the challenges faced by informal economy workers, including low wages, lack of social protection, and job insecurity. At this webinar, jointly hosted by CSDA and The Just Society project at Southern Denmark University, Lauren and Khuliso presented findings from a study about gig work and how it prompts us to reconsider the social contract. It contributes to key conversations about SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Dr Anthony Kaziboni, senior researcher at the CSDA, chaired the thought-provoking webinar, which was based on a study funded by the NRF DST Centre of Excellence in Human Development located at WITS. Prof Graham framed the study – which was done in response to the discourse of gig work as a solution to youth unemployment in South Africa and other developing contexts. Despite the perceived benefits of gig work in providing easier access to the labour market, the study examined the implications, particularly regarding social protection and labour rights. It highlights the paradox of gig work offering flexibility but lacking employment benefits and protections.


Khuliso Matidza, researcher at the CSDA, presented the findings. The research findings reveal several key themes regarding gig workers and their working conditions.

  1. Wages and Benefits: Gig workers’ wages varied depending on the tasks they performed, ranging from R45 to R75. Delivery drivers for Checkers stores earned around R30 per delivery. Benefits were limited to transportation allowances.
  2. Worker Identity and Classification: Many gig workers struggle to identify themselves as either employees or independent contractors due to the lack of clarity regarding their roles and responsibilities. They often had to bear their own costs, such as purchasing data for accessing the app, leading to confusion about their employment status.
  3. Worker Rights and Protections: Online-based gig workers typically signed agreements upon accessing the app. Although there was confusion over whether this constituted an employment contract, on further inquiry participants noted that these were actually terms and conditions of using the app. Delivery drivers were offered contracts lasting from one year to one year and four months. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were provided with safety materials but lacked adequate social protections. Additionally, there was no collective action or organising among gig workers, such as trade unions or meetings to address workplace issues.

Overall, the findings highlight the challenges faced by gig workers, including uncertainty about employment status, lack of benefits and protections, and limited opportunities for collective action.

Prof Lauren Graham added that interviews with policymakers and platform representatives revealed an awareness of worker vulnerability and willingness to find solutions. However, they also pointed to the difficulties given definitions of employees in the current policy landscape.

The research emphasised the need for collaborative efforts to address the security and rights of gig and informal workers. This includes redefining employee classifications and advocating for better conditions on platforms. Additionally, while debates around basic income grants are significant, other policies such as UIF reform and advocacy for informal worker rights, should not be overlooked. The study calls for innovative solutions and expanded social assistance for informal workers, underscoring the importance of broader policy engagement beyond basic income debates.

You can view the full presentation here.

As the discussant, Prof Marianne S. Ulriksen (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Management, University of Southern Denmark) highlighted the importance of the topic, particularly in the context of South Africa’s experiences with cash transfers to informal workers during the pandemic.

Prof Ulriksen raised four discussion points:

  • She cautioned against seeing the basic income grant as a singular solution, emphasising the need for a broader understanding of vulnerabilities that different groups face, and its structural roots.
  • She discussed the challenge of organising platform workers due to their dispersed nature and varied relationships with platforms, seeking examples of successful organisation for insights.
  • She questioned the effectiveness of piecemeal policy solutions in addressing the structural issues within traditional employment frameworks.
  • She encouraged comparisons between different contexts to facilitate learning and exchange of ideas among practitioners and researchers.

Questions and thoughts from the audience were invited. The discussion touched on critical issues such as social protection, formalisation of work, engagement of traditional labour organisations, and policy responses to the gig economy’s challenges.

View the recording of the webinar here.