“Riders – Heroes – Chains,” a study from Chula that reflects a fast-growing modern workforce, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic but without assurance or protection of their welfare.
“This isn’t just about riders’ careers, but it is an employment model for the future,” stated the “Riders – Heroes – Chains” seminar organized by the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University which shone a spotlight on the new group of workers, or gig workers, who, despite their exponential growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, lacking any protection or welfare and who are constantly exploited by their employers.
Akanat Wantanasombat, Academician of Mekong Studies Center, Institute for Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, whose research “Riders – Heroes – Chains — the Working Conditions and Social Security of Food Delivery Workers on the Platform Economy during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, reveals the problem of inequality and the absence of labor protection which requires attention from all parties, including consumers.
Outdated laws lag behind rising numbers of riders
Labor relations between the employers/online platforms and the riders/employees are different from the familiar salaried employment with the place of operation which changed from brick and mortar to a mobile platform (smartphone). Their interaction, if any, is only through online orders. The wages come from the delivery of orders. This means that the more orders a rider receives, the more money that rider earns each day.
As a result, each rider’s income is uncertain and fluctuates according to the daily situation that cannot be determined in advance. Riders’ bargaining power is low because they rely on the platform as their main source of income. And even though there are few competitors in the online platforms, these riders still have no better choices, because each platform can set the conditions for riders’ wages without any governmental regulations to set wage standards, not to mention workers’ welfare or benefits.
Athanat reveals that employment without regulations for workers’ protection that meet the same standards as the rest of the workforce has become a golden opportunity for employers to take advantage of riders, while the relevant government agencies continue to ignore the problem.
“One in three riders has met an accident while working, resulting in a medical leave of absence, but this type of leave for this group of workers affects their income and monthly performance assessments for contract renewal. Employers only hire workers with a record of good performance. Therefore, this type of employment creates problems in itself because it cannot guarantee the welfare of these workers at all.”
Akanat further stresses that in the future, this type of employment is increasing with consumer behavior that favors the service, but existing employee protection laws still remain vague. The inability to specify these workers’ status leads to other problems, including welfare and social security.
Urging the Government to impose Labor Laws Reform
Riders are classified as one type of freelancer who are not bound to a certain organization. They are paid as conditional contractors, not monthly salaried workers like civil servants or regular company employees, leaving this new group of workers on the sideline of the Labor Protection Act.
Akanat pointed out that if the government does not modernize the criteria for workers’ welfare based on the current economy and employment fad known as the “Gig Economy” (short-term employment, such as independent contractors, freelancers), the impact may become extensive, and post a threat to economic stability.
“Freelance riders get paid a lot differently than freelance designers because they use different skills and abilities. So, when an accident happens to a rider, they don’t get access to social security. They have to take care of themselves without protection from the law. It is also hopeless for them to seek the protection of the Social Security Act under Sections 33 or 39 which only cover the labors associated with places of business. Even though riders are freelancers with company affiliations, they are not protected under these laws, while Section 40 benefits don’t motivate them to apply,” Akanat said.
As a result, if an unforeseen event happens to them, whether loss of employment or disability, their livelihood will inevitably be affected. In the long run, it will be necessary to overhaul labor protection regulations with the significant increase of these new workers in mind.
In other countries, the culture of labor unionization is impactful. Each group of laborers will help each other and the bargaining power of the unions is far-reaching. Even government agencies protect the workers by suing private companies if they are found guilty of unfair labor treatment. Therefore, the likelihood of private companies exploiting these workers decreases.
“Currently, Thai riders lack any sponsor to campaign for their protection, nor has there been law reform for their benefits. Therefore, the Ministry of Labor should make the first move to define what this group of workers is, and what type of employees they are, how to design the social security law to cover this group in line with the Labor Protection Code, provident funds, as well as health insurance that are suitable for these workers, and how to prevent them from being a burden for the country in the long run.” Akanat summed up the research findings, emphasizing that the government should initiate labor law reforms and involve all parties to solve the problem. The consumers who use these riders’ services, in particular, must begin to recognize and understand their riders’ employment situation and participate in driving for their protection and welfare.