A new rating system, developed by academics at Oxford University, has been piloted in South Africa and India, and touted as the first to evaluate working conditions in the digital economy.
The Fairwork rating system scrutinises the working conditions of digital platforms, including Uber, Taxify and Ola, and evaluates them against five key criteria: work, conditions, contracts, management, and representation - including whether a company pays the minimum wage and ensures workers' health and safety.
Professor Mark Graham from Oxford's Internet Institute said these areas have for too long lacked regulation to protect workers.
"These ratings will enable consumers to make informed choices about the platforms and services they need when ordering a cab, a takeaway or outsourcing a simple task," he said.
According to the academics, the Fairwork assessment has seen SA companies like Bottle and NoSweat implement changes in specific areas.
Wilfred Greyling, co-founder of NoSweat, said, "What Fairwork brought to the table is a structured approach to making sure the work we post on our platform is fair for all sides. Essentially, embracing the Fairwork Foundation's principles is an extension and formalisation of our own beliefs."
The NoSweat platform is understood to have introduced a formal policy to improve pay for workers as well as protect their health and safety.
Greyling added: "There are way too many companies that allow their employees to bully and place unfair requirements on suppliers. We see that regularly. Fairwork covers the basics. Each of the five points they explore actually have two levels - a basic compliance and then a deeper, more comprehensive requirement."
SA tech entrepreneur Anthony Stonefield said, "There should be reciprocity in the form of similarly codified performance benchmarks for the workers, too, ideally not something that can be 'gamed' or skewed by a single incident of customer ire. We should avoid being mesmerised by the dream of codification and automation. In the case of ride-sharing services, many drivers are resourceful enough to work for more than one company at the same time, exploiting each for its immediate advantages, somewhat like having multiple SIM cards on your mobile phone."
The rating system, which will be updated annually with the expected participation of Germany and the UK, involved collaboration with the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape, among others.
Stonefield believes the system could help avoid the pitfalls for legacy workers' rights systems which are prone to subjectivity and cultural bias.
"Codification, while seemingly cold, does carry the realistic promises of decentralisation and transparency, a possible foundation (for) a merit-based labour market in the digital era."