Research and advocacy of progressive and pragmatic policy ideas.
What level of social protection do gig workers want, particularly those working full-time hours or more? We ask this question and more in our study of gig workers.
By Edwin Goh & Nelleita Omar
8 January 2020
In Part 1 of our gig worker study published late last year, we delved into the employment intensity of gig workers to understand the importance of gig work to them. We found two realities: slightly under 50% of those surveyed treat gig work as a side hustle but slightly over 50% surveyed see gig work as their main job. For a significant proportion, gig work is no longer ‘casual’ but the main means to make ends meet.
Yet, gig workers lack access to social protection such as EPF contributions, which are mandated by law only for formal employees. In the gig economy, gig workers are deemed as freelancing ‘partners’ rather than employees.
With the rise of gig jobs and gig platforms – bike-hailing being the latest at the time of writing – the need for gig worker social protection could only become more pressing.
The government is working on new legislation to redefine the employment status of gig workers and protect gig worker welfare. In the meantime, we sought to understand gig workers’ current participation in social protection programs and their level of demand for different types of benefits and social protection.
For more details on study methodology, please refer to Part 1.
Do gig workers save for emergencies and retirement? Do they have adequate insurance?
Based on our survey, 59% do not have emergency savings and 59% do not have retirement/old age savings – a significant majority. In terms of insurance, 75% of gig workers do not have unemployment insurance, 57% do not have personal healthcare insurance and 37%* do not have work-related injury or accident insurance (Figure 1). Very importantly, 22% or close to one-fifth of those surveyed do not have any of the mentioned forms of social protection.
*Relatively low compared to the others, presumably because e-hailing drivers are required to have work-related injury and accident insurance due to the PSV license requirements.
In Part 1 of this study, we categorised gig workers as ‘full-time’, ‘part-time’ and ‘casual’ based on their reported hours worked. Applying this categorisation, we found that only 44% of ‘full-time’ gig workers and 42% of ‘part-time’ gig workers have complete social protection coverage*. 60% of ‘casual’ gig workers, a much higher percentage, have complete social protection coverage (Figure 2) though this is mostly due to the fact that many in this category have conventional jobs with the accompanying employment benefits.
*Complete social protection coverage is defined here as possessing emergency savings, retirement savings, health insurance, unemployment insurance and work-related injury or accident insurance.
When asked to choose amongst a menu of worker benefits, work-related cost subsidies (such as petrol and phone bill subsidies) and minimum hourly wages were the clear favourites, chosen by 60% and 59% of the gig workers surveyed respectively (Figure 3). Unsurprisingly, the benefits that improve take-home pay are more demanded than benefits that provide protection.
Retirement savings and work-related injury insurance are the next most demanded, selected by 42% and 40% of respondents respectively. Career development opportunities are the least demanded, reflecting the limited expectations on gig work for career growth.
Somewhat surprisingly, we found that the majority of gig workers surveyed are willing to have the gig platform deduct a portion of their gig income for various types of social protection (Figure 4). More than two-thirds of respondents indicated that they were willing* to have deductions for work-related injury insurance (77%), retirement savings (72%) and unemployment insurance (69%). A smaller majority, but still over half of those surveyed are willing to have deductions for emergency savings (66%) and health insurance (64%) (Figure 4).
*‘Willing’ respondents are those who answered ‘yes’ or ‘depends on the amount’ to the question posed (Figure 4).
The survey had a wide range of responses to this open-ended question. Generally speaking, the majority of gig workers surveyed, 64%, are willing to have under RM200 a month put aside for the various savings and insurance benefits we outlined. The median amount respondents are willing to put aside is RM100. 15% of gig workers would put aside not more than RM25, 19% would set aside RM25 – RM99 while 30% would put aside RM100 – RM199. A not insignificant 37% would be willing to put aside amounts above RM200 per month for savings and insurance (Figure 5).
According to respondents: yes, resoundingly. Our study revealed that a whopping 92% of gig workers want their gig platform to contribute to some level of social protection for those that effectively work full-time hours (Figure 6).
Could this be due to a conception, rightly or wrongly, of gig platform as de facto employers? Since gig platforms have the lions’ share of control in the working relationship, particularly the power to set rates and to suspend or terminate, gig platforms may be seen as relatively powerful employers (rather than ‘business partners’) in all but name, thereby attaching them with certain expectations.
On a concluding note, we asked survey respondents how many people depend on their earnings, gig income or otherwise. Over 60% of gig workers, regardless of employment intensity, have three or more household members dependent on their earnings.
Today, social protection for gig workers is mainly on a voluntary basis, such as voluntary retirement savings scheme i-Saraan; the only mandatory form of social protection is work-related injury and accident insurance for e-hailing drivers, in line with PSV license requirements.
In light of gig economy-related issues, the government has set up a special committee to seek long-term solutions. To ensure better social protection, the government plans to include worker protection for gig workers in the drafting of the 12th Malaysia Plan 2021 – 2025.
If the current proof of concept goes well, this year we will be seeing the full introduction of new bike-hailing or motorcycle ride-sharing services in Malaysia under Dego Ride, Grab Bike and Gojek. Accordingly, analysts and observers anticipate thousands of new gig workers.
While we doubt gig work’s prospects for upward social mobility, it is undeniable that gig work provides an accessible way to make a living, particularly for workers with few qualifications and career options. As shown by our survey, however, for the majority this is not accompanied by adequate possession of or participation in key forms of social protection. At the same time, there appears to be some willingness by gig workers to set aside some of the wages earned for savings and insurance.
What measures should then be taken? In our view, voluntary schemes are not the most effective way of ensuring that gig workers possess social protection. Financial literacy efforts are well and good but we humans are mostly present-biased, preferring immediate gratification if given a choice. Automatic enrolment in earnings deduction schemes, with an opt-out option for those who have existing plans, would be much more effective. And automatic enrolment is particularly feasible via gig platforms with their developed back-end infrastructure.
However, these are arguably tactical and process-oriented issues. The larger question is whether gig platforms, and other businesses that employ large numbers of informal workers, should contribute towards their ‘worker-partners’ social protection?
To uphold the principle of fairness and to avoid labour exploitation, we believe that gig workers who consistently put in full-time hours every week (or more) should receive social protection contributions from their gig platforms.
Implementing matching contributions by gig platforms is a trickier proposition as who is effectively working ‘full-time’ hours at their gig job changes all the time. But it is not impossible. With data that is already being collected by the gig platforms contributions can be dynamic, calculated based on average hours worked every week or month beyond an agreed minimum and other conditions. It is a matter of policy-setting and adjusting our long-standing notion of what constitutes ‘full-time employment’.
The new legislation on gig workers which is currently in the works could contain the beginnings of a new definition, one that reflects today’s labour market that is increasingly populated by gig workers, contract workers and freelancers. Given this new landscape, the backbone of social protection also needs to change.
Today’s system is reliant on employers as the distribution channel for social protection – it is highly likely that you’ll have EPF and SOCSO if you’ve been registered by a company as an employee. Malaysia needs to transition towards individual social protection accounts, set up early in life, regardless of employment status. Such individual accounts would not only facilitate deductions or contributions into savings and insurance plans when (or if) one starts working, they would also enable government to target aid better and improve tax collection.
The rise of the gig economy has changed conventional notions of employment and what is owed to ‘informal’ workers. The advantages of gig work such as flexible working hours and low employment obligations are also its disadvantages – job insecurity and income instability. How we ensure legal and social protection for gig workers will inform how we deal with the changing labour market more broadly.
It is not hard to imagine a future where most people of working age are informal or contract workers in some form. Those who employ them should have fair and clear responsibilities towards workers’ welfare, reflecting their labour contribution. At the same time, the workers themselves should be supported in managing their present and their future needs in ways that work with, not against, human limitations.
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