The Risk of Health and Gig Workers from the perspective of Shared Prosperity Value

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By Amirul Hamza bin Abdullah, Research Analyst Institut Masa Depan Malaysia (MASA)

Two years into the outbreak of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has shown that the pandemic affected more than just health and the global economy. Therefore, both health and the economy shall need a long time to recover and return to a new normal livelihood.

Based on our observation, it’s clear that COVID-19 has become one of the events that precipitated social inequality. Those with underlying health conditions are at high risk; World Health Organization (WHO) research shows that patients with hypertension who contract the disease face an 8.4% fatality rate. Patients with the cardiovascular disease face a higher risk of fatality, at 13.2%.

A study by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) discovered that 20.4% and 38.3% of low household income are living with diabetes and high blood pressure compared to top household income only 14.8% and 27.1%, respectively. It stands to reason then that those with lower incomes are more likely to experience severe responses to COVID-19. Furthermore, people with lower household income have limited access to testing and healthcare, further exacerbating their already precarious condition.

The spread of COVID-19 thrives off social interaction, which is why the Movement Control Order (MCO) had to be enacted by the government. A majority of citizens have been ordered to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, despite the heightened risk of exposure, some have remained at jobs considered ‘essential.’ Those considered essential are medical workers who are taking significant risks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and gig workers who are primarily working in the delivery services.

When the lockdown was enacted, the low-income households were worried about reduced income and the possibility of losing jobs and income. However, the gig economy has opened a door for them to generate additional income. This becomes significant when the demand for services such as P-hailing services increases dramatically than before. Hence, they have to stay working despite the highly elevated health risk of doing so.  By the end of 2020, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) stated employment in the gig economy totalled 700,000 workers. However, 8 out of 10 gig economy jobs are in the location-based employment category, such as P-hailing service, and the rest are online-website-based such as a programmer. P-hailing services are defined as food and parcel delivery using motorcycles.

Those in this P-hailing service are vulnerable in two ways. Firstly, they are exposed to COVID-19 infection around the pandemic, and secondly exposed to the risk of work hazards such as accidents while making a delivery or service. The situation is much worse considering that they do not have the same protection as full-time jobs. For example, amidst the MCO in 2020, 91 accident cases related to riders in P-hailing services.

The current situation shows that we are starting to understand the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on health and wellbeing. However, low-income workers especially gig worker are vulnerable and more likely to experience health shocks and increased vulnerability to economic shocks related to COVID-19. Therefore, as governments continue to generate effective and proactive policy options to navigate this pandemic, keeping these P-hailing services concerns in mind should be a priority.

Thus, most self-account workers, including gig economy workers, do not have the same protection as formal sector workers. MASA proposes that the government start an initial strategy to protect them by obligating them to register for the Social Security protection scheme (SOCSO). The government would be subsidizing half of the cost of subscribing to SOCSO. An allocation of RM533.5 million a year will be needed for a limited period to encourage self-buy-in of this social security system. Furthermore, collective bargaining is vital to them fundamentally to bridge gaps in the legislation and provide the right path to responses for the needs between workers and employers. Therefore, the gig economy worker should strengthen the collective bargaining by established a gig economy worker union to helping or supporting the collaborative organization of gig workers.

Their employment program system needs to be modified, especially in providing employment protection to them. The foundation element in this policy should focus on the need-based approach and inclusivity. This action is also outlined in the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, which will realize the first objective of SPV, which is development to all.

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