The platform economy: Flexibility or race to the bottom?

As the so-called fourth industrial revolution unfolds, gig work driven by technology companies in the platform economy, is being promoted as the solution for the unemployment crisis as it lowers the barriers to entry into the labour market.

There are a number of companies that have proliferated in recent years offering gig work or what’s come to be known as microwork via apps, where complexity is stripped away from projects, which are broken down into singular tasks distributed over the internet via platform companies. On the higher end of the skills spectrum people may engage in, for example, desktop publishing tasks via platform companies, such as Mechanical Turk or Clickworker, while on the lower end of the skills spectrum – and possibly most famous globally – people drive cars for the e-hailing taxi service, Uber.

There are, of course, a whole range of jobs in between in the platform economy, but the distinguishing feature of this gig economy, emphasized in its name, is that is part time work, and people are paid per task, which means that there is no job security or social protections offered by the companies, such as health benefits, sick pay, annual leave and retirement benefits. Gig workers are also often paid below minimum wage.

So, gig work has come to be associated with precarious work–and gig workers all over the world are taking these platform companies to court, as they find themselves exploited and experience rights violations.

Our guests are two lawyers that have defended gig workers, Prof. Darcy du Toit from the University of the Western Cape (UWC). And bringing us the international perspective is German Lawyer Dr. Ruediger Helm.

Prof. du Toit is an Emeritus Professor at UWC and former Dean of Law. He currently coordinates a new niche area in the Faculty of Law, Labour Law 4.0. His research focuses, amongst other things, on the impact of digitalisation on labour rights and changing forms of work. As a practitioner he has worked as a labour arbitrator and remains a consultant to Bradley Conradie Halton Cheadle Attorneys, a firm specialising in labour law, in which capacity he represented former Uber drivers in the first litigation against Uber in South Africa.

Dr. Ruediger Helm is a German lawyer who is also a research affiliate with the University of Cape Town’s Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). Ruediger has spent more than two decades working in the legal and research fields. Amongst his achievements is the fact that he was architect of the “Mangold-Helm Case” to the European Court of Justice, which led to a new interpretation of Age Discrimination laws and other kinds of work discrimination laws in Europe.

This podcast was hosted by Fazila Farouk and produced by Alex Comninos.

The music for this podcast is “Nobody Think Nomo” by Chimurenga Renaissance (feat. Mall Saint).

Image by MikeDotta /