Decent work, the gig-economy and the Ghanaian youth

The employment landscape is changing. It is worth repeating that technology is permeating every sphere of life and changing the way work has traditionally been defined and undertaken.

And this has contributed significantly to the rise and rise of the ‘gig-economy’ – the ‘industrial’ name for the activities captured as part-time work or freelancing in contemporary times. In the gig-economy, roles or assignments are given out as temporary positions or on a short-term basis.

In the UK alone, the BBC reports that there are about three million people involved in this type of employment. Its prevalence has for long been overlooked, but it does appear to be very extensively used and may be the way of the future, as Prof Jacobs and colleagues from Oxford and Pretoria Universities discovered.

Besides its precarious short-term nature and the associated insecurities plaguing those involved, the other downside is the loss of revenue to the state; for example, costing the British government around four billion pounds a year. Being a gig-worker has evolved from being only a part-time worker to being a ‘full-time’ part-time worker. Ironical!

A Gig-Worker: By Will or By Force

The prominence gained by the gig-economy is clearly attributable to the times. On the demand side, employers are constantly seeking cost-effective methods of carrying out tasks to achieve significant outputs. On the supply side, the ‘status’ as a gig worker can be induced or self-imposed.

The induced gig-worker is one who, more often than not, has become a ‘full-time part-timer’ by compulsion. She has sought solace in the gig-economy as a response to her non-engagement with any firm as a permanent, full-time staff (a description that is heading toward extinction). Long periods of unemployment can induce people to resort to the gig-economy.

Considering her knowledge, interests and expertise, a niche is created in a specific field(s) for which she can be engaged on a short-term basis. A self-imposed gig-worker could be that one who willingly chooses not to commit her 9 am-5 pm to any one organisation, but will enjoy the flexibility that comes with the gig-economy. This opens up new employment conditions in fields such as media, where employment is on an hourly basis or limited time periods that avail extra hours for second and third jobs.

Whether induced or self-imposed, working in the gig-economy can be fun – with a fair dose of challenges!

The Good and The Bad

The nature of work is increasingly assuming a tech-dependent, Internet-enabled character; a phenomenon that is true in many developed countries and progressively seeping into developing countries.

This allows work to be undertaken outside the physical space of ‘work’. Freelancers are able to undertake gigs around the world and not be restricted by visa requirements and costs associated with relocation. For employers, the pool of human resource becomes endless! And they are almost assured of getting the most likely candidate that delivers results to execute assignments.

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Unemployment statistics aren’t looking great. The gig-economy offers an opportunity for individuals to channel their energies into productive ventures – earning money, gaining much needed work experience, and contributing to the world of work.

The current reality is that people are likely to change jobs many times throughout their career, and the gig-economy allows people to exit the formal labour market and still live pretty comfortably (if not more comfortably). On the side of employers, the gig-economy allows businesses to have some functions running, although not by full-time staff but part-time workers. Businesses can’t be faulted entirely; operation costs can be quite a drain!

In an era when concern for maintaining an optimal work-life balance is perhaps at the highest ever, does the gig-economy hold a solution? Gig-workers may have a better work-life balance since they can choose what times of their day they can commit to certain tasks, unlike full-time employers who are compelled to keep to a 9am-5pm schedule.

Presumably, they can take their rest as they please and work during the time of day they deem most productive – an important consideration for nocturnal people who would otherwise struggle on the traditional 9am-5pm shift.

While gig-workers may enjoy that kind of flexibility and optimise their work-life balance, employers will also be saving big on office space, utilities, capacity building and, of course, personnel benefits!

Truth be told, working in the gig-economy can’t be all rosy. There may be dry spells – moments, times, months without active engagement. Those moments can be trying for anyone who does not have consistent income within regular intervals, especially in countries where there are limited or no safety nets.

Gig workers are entitled to payment in return for their service rendered. No benefits! Will working under such conditions qualify to be categorised as ‘decent work’?

Decent Work and the Ghanaian Youth

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines decent work as the “aspiration of people in their working lives…opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men”.

The Ghana Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651) indeed recognises the need to protect employees, but focuses mainly on those with ‘full-time permanent’ status. Part X of the Act, ‘Special Provisions Relating to Temporary Workers and Casual Workers’, captures the considerations made for non-full-time employees (which does not include part-time workers).

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The Act captures the remuneration given to casual and temporary workers. In practice, many young people working in the gig-economy do not necessarily get their due because of the unique characteristics of their engagement (under certain circumstance they can be casual workers, and at other times be temporary workers).

It is known that every 4 out of 10 Ghanaian youth (population aged between 15-35) enters the job market with different levels of education and skills, coupled with limited or no work experience. This difficulty limits the chances of youth securing employment in the formal sector, which projects alternative working conditions as useful.

The gig-economy indeed provides a useful alternative that could be a means to an end or an end in itself. Young people who are at the bottom of the skills-and-experience pyramid need to be protected to ensure little or no exploitation in the name of ‘gaining work experience’.

At the policy level, the Ghana Labour Act can be reviewed to capture the contemporary trends of employment and provide the necessary protection from exploitation. The Ghana Labour Commission should be well-resourced to address the ‘creative ways’ organisations engage staff in their bid to reduce operational costs. Also, the Social Security and National Insurance Trust should ensure that organisations which engage gig workers for more than 6-months pay their pension contribution.

Organisations need to be more socially responsible. The labour market indeed has excess labour, but that should not lead to deliberate exploitation – which can take the form of engaging staff full time on a part-time basis. As the gig-economy indeed presents an alternative for the youth, conditions of service could be improved significantly to allow them enjoy some benefits – such as health insurance and pension schemes.

As a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals, Ghana needs policies and initiatives supported by the private sector and civil society to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all by 2030, as demanded by the eighth goal.

In the current reality where the state does not spearhead the provision of jobs, state agencies whose work border on employment creation and labour protection could have a programme that enables freelance workers to migrate from being short-term employees to statuses such as consultants or entrepreneurs, to limit the incidence of exploitation.

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