Self-isolate or get paid? That's the choice for gig workers in a virus outbreak

(CNN) — International attempts to contain the novel coronavirus are stretching the capability and patience of the international community, as trade, travel and business as usual continue to suffer.

The crisis has already passed the point of no return. If and when the spread slows, some of the world's most powerful will have to answer serious questions about how societies, economies and global structures currently operate and how sustainable our way of life really is.

Governments are announcing policies to stop the spread and soften the financial impact on companies and workers. However, the global response has thus far ignored how the outbreak will affect a group of people who over the past decade have become an essential cornerstone of urban life: gig workers.

Kyle, who declined to give his last name in order to maintain his professional privacy, is a driver who has worked for Uber and Lyft. He told CNN: "I'm worried but I think that it's somewhat unavoidable at this point, unless you stay home and refuse to interact with any other humans."

The problem is, people who work in the gig economy seldom enjoy the workplace benefits of those who work in more traditional salaried jobs. And many of these gig workers may soon have to make a choice: self-isolate to stop the spread and not be paid, or ignore public health warnings and carry on working even if they have symptoms of the virus.

The gig worker problem came into focus in the U.K. earlier this week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday that anyone with symptoms should "self-isolate." He said "nobody should be penalized for doing the right thing," and that workers would be financially compensated in full for the time they take off work.

However, trade union groups have pointed out that this plan doesn't support people working in the gig economy, which is responsible for a significant chunk of the U.K.'s jobs growth over the past decade.

Self-isolating or paying the bills

To understand the scale of the problem in the U.K., a study last year revealed that as many as one in 10 working-age adults had participated in "platform work" — a term used to describe gig work found via apps, or platforms. The report also claimed that over a quarter of the population had attempted to find work via apps associated with the gig economy.

Aidan Harper, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, explains: "People are being forced to register as self-employed workers ... It takes away a lot of responsibilities that an employer would otherwise have to had to give you — and that includes sick pay." Which, Harper adds, puts these workers in a position of having to decide whether or not to follow public health advice: "You're making the choice between self-isolating and going into debt and missing paying bills."

Gig economy platforms have introduced policies around sick pay in the U.K. Most notably, Uber last year announced that workers would be able to claim sick pay and maternity pay. However, critics have pointed out that the pay only kicks in after a certain number of days off and is capped.

Such concerns have prompted challenges around Europe to the way Uber classifies its workers. This week, the French Supreme Court ruled that its drivers' status as "independent" workers is "fictitious" — explaining that as they do not have their own clients and cannot choose their own itineraries, they do in fact have an employer.

Britain is typical of many countries where gig work is common, and campaigners hope that the outbreak of Covid-19 will start a serious conversation about gig economy working conditions around the world.

"Whether it was the lack of protections or lack of maternity cover or pension, it's taken this kind of health scare to make people think about the plight of these workers," says Kapila Perera, director of research at Doteveryone, a think tank focusing on responsibility in modern technology.

Perera believes that the gig economy boom has also had a profound effect on consumer culture. "It has normalized low protections, low wages for workers." He says that it's made consumers come to expect "that they can get a takeaway or a taxi whenever and not think about the implications for workers."

Scott Schieman, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, explains this heightened consumer expectation has happened at the same time as "a capacity for preferences," where users can evaluate the performance of a workers with virtually no human interaction.

"Uber passengers can select a quiet preferred option where you effectively turn your driver into a chauffeur. I would never have got into a cab and asked a driver to keep quiet."