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Get well or get paid? Gig workers' tough coronavirus choices

Activists worry that telecommuting will boost demand for food deliveries, likely exposing workers to the risk of infection.

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As the coronavirus pandemic worsens, countries are closing borders, many companies and schools are cancelling trips and outings, and some employers are encouraging employees to work from home in a bid to slow or prevent the spread of the virus.

But remote work — or telecommuting — just isn’t an option for some, especially gig workers. The current coronavirus situation is forcing workers to choose between going out to work or staying home, according to Tuomas Tammisto, a former food courier for meal delivery firm Foodora.

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"Because food delivery freelancers are couriers, they are not entitled to sick pay. So if a courier catches this virus or any other illness, they cannot work and they lose income. And that’s a problem for food delivery couriers quite apart from this current epidemic. It applies to any illness," Tammisto told APN.

He also pointed out that in a situation where people work from home or there are more quarantines, there is likely to be increased demand for meal deliveries.

"So couriers also think about [the fact] that they move in restaurants and in the public so there is some concern about whether or not they will catch it but I think the main concern is, can one afford not to work," he observed.

Wolt working on contactless deliveries

Tammisto noted that the grassroots movement Justice for Couriers, which has been advocating improved terms and conditions of work for couriers, has made small gains. For example Finnish food delivery company Wolt has provided some level of insurance coverage for workers. But what would really solve the problem would be proper employment contracts for couriers, he added.

APN spoke with Finnish food delivery firm Wolt, which said that it has issued guidelines to employees about how to act during the pandemic.

"We’re constantly monitoring the situation in the 20 countries and 75 cities we’re in. We are ready to update our existing policies based on the recommendations of local authorities and WHO [the World Health Organization]," Wolt Finland general manager Henrik Pankakoski told APN via email.

He added that the firm is working on an update to its app that would allow couriers to leave meal deliveries at customers’ front door, a development that Tammisto welcomed.

However, when asked whether it would be following the lead of big gig worker employers like Uber and Lyft and providing sick pay or financial compensation during quarantine, it did not commit either way.

"We're looking into how we could do that, but apart from that, we don't have anything to share at this point. We'll know more later," Pankakoski responded.

Fewer protections for gig workers

Maija Mattila, a researcher with the Social Democratic think tank Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, said that the categorisation of couriers as entrepreneurs means that they have fewer protections than regularly-contracted employees.

"If you are an employee the employer has obligations towards you. You have the right to collectively bargain about working conditions, and pay and holidays. But if you’re an entrepreneur you don’t have any of those rights. And obviously this makes many platform workers — those who are not employed — very vulnerable," she explained.

Mattila said that current estimates put the number of gig economy workers at about one percent of the working population in 2017. According to Statistics Finland, the most recent estimate of people in part-time work was over 400,000 in 2018, with 106,000 on zero-hour contracts. She noted that classifying people like food couriers as entrepreneurs can have long-term implications for the social security system.

"Now, about one-third of Finland’s social security system is financed by employers. So if you don’t have employers that share is going down and we’re going to have to figure out who is going to pay for the rest," she cautioned.

PM Marin steps up

The researcher said that people, particularly workers on insecure work contracts, would probably like to see clearer guidelines in the current situation.

"I have to say that at least I at this point do hope for a bit more decisiveness in this matter rather than just recommendations. If you are on a zero-hour contract and you have shifts in the coming weeks, then your position is rather secure, because you are entitled to sick pay or paid for quarantine from Kela. But if you don’t have any shifts that might be more difficult."

Shortly after APN was recorded, Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced a series of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus in Finland, including a recommendation to cancel events with more than 500 persons. In Finland, the number of confirmed cases of the disease caused by novel coronavirus almost doubled from Wednesday to 109 by Thursday afternoon.

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If you have any questions or would like to share your thoughts, just contact us via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter account, or at yle.news@yle.fi.

This week's show was presented by Denise Wall and produced by Priya Ramachandran D'souza. The sound engineer this week was Anders Johansson.

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