Platform work is often hailed as a new opportunity for people to earn extra income and access formerly closed global labour markets. However, the risks and benefits of the gig economy are highly uneven. While consumers and platforms benefit from cheap labour costs and easily accessible services, workers on these platforms often face low wages and dangerous working conditions.
The Fairwork Project assesses gig economy platforms in 25 countries based on five principles of fair work: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation. Our findings show that low pay and lack of labour rights remains prevalent across the global gig economy. The overwhelming majority of platform workers, especially in the Global South, do not earn minimum wages. Some even make losses working for platform companies, due to the high costs associated with the job (equipment, fuel, etc). For some sectors like ridesharing, the lack of demand during the pandemic has led to additional cuts in pay, with no compensation from the platform. As a driver in Cape Town, South Africa describes: “I started the job for the returns, but now the ship is sinking and the returns aren’t there. It all amounts to nothing and is demotivating”. Those working on cloudwork (or crowdwork) platforms like Upwork or Fiverr experienced similar challenges during the pandemic due to an increase in competition from new users. A freelancer working for TranscribeMe told us how “before, you would find jobs that would sit on the platform unclaimed for days, now everything is gone within a few hours. As a result, I had to change the hours I worked and started working in the night-time. Generally, I would start at 10pm and work until sunrise, just to get a few dollars.”
Gig workers also face poor and even dangerous working conditions which can have long-lasting effects on their physical and mental health. While some platforms have started to offer insurance policies and emergency assistance tools, workers often report feeling like their health is not a priority for the platform. As a delivery rider for the app Zomato in Bangalore, India puts it: “they told us that if your bike is punctured, take a rental bike and finish the delivery first. If you meet with an accident, first finish the delivery and then go wherever you have to go.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the risks faced by platform workers: while most people were quarantining to avoid contagion, these workers were risking their health to provide essential services like delivering groceries or driving patients to the hospital. In an analysis of 191 platforms across 43 countries, we found that most COVID-related measures announced by both platforms and governments fell short from adequately addressing the needs of gig workers. Platforms’ responses to the pandemic rarely went further than offering some free PPE equipment or temporary sick pay, with workers reporting difficulties to accessing the advertised benefits.
Furthermore, through our research we have found many workers who are not aware of the terms and conditions governing their relationship with the platform. This is partly because contracts are not easily available but also because they might not be written in the local language or in an accessible way. They also raised concerns about platforms’ use of workers’ behavioural data to adapt the scheduling and payment algorithms without informing them. Gig workers often report having little to no say on how their work is performed. Many join these platforms with the promise of ‘being their own boss’, but soon face a different reality. This is how a Deliveroo rider in Reading, UK felt: “We are clearly not our own boss… we’re not in control of getting work. What flexible means for them is not what flexible means for us”. Perhaps the most explicit example of the lack of control by workers is that they often do not have access to a fair appeal process if their ratings drop or they get deactivated from the app. And although gig workers have started to organise collectively to demand better conditions, very few platforms actually recognise or engage with unions and workers’ associations. In fact, the fear of being disciplined or deactivated by the platform is regularly reported as the reason for not participating in collective actions.
But our results also highlight significant differences between platforms. While still in the minority, some platforms do care about their workers’ needs and try to actively improve their working conditions. Through constructive dialogue with our team, several platforms have agreed to improve the conditions of their workers by, for example, implementing minimum wage floors, anti-discrimination policies and improving the communication channels with workers.
This shows two things:
- First, the working conditions of gig economy platform workers around the world urgently need to improve.
- Secondly, working conditions are not a quasi-natural outcome of economic or technological developments, but they are the result of deliberate choices. Choices made by platform management about how they want to organise work on their platform and what business model they want to pursue.
While “low-road” business models have so far been the norm, there are some indicators that the tide is slowly turning in the gig economy — making it more difficult for platforms to get away with poor working conditions, while also making it financially attractive for platforms to invest in the quality of work offered.
In virtually every country, digital labour platforms are facing increasing labour unrest. Despite the challenges of atomisation and risks of deactivation, gig workers have become very successful in joining forces and organising collective actions to demand better conditions. Delivery riders, rideshare drivers and app-based freelancers have taken over the streets of cities across the globe. These workers are not limited to their national context but forming cross-border alliances and networks of global solidarity. Through international coalitions like Unidxs World Action or IAATW (International Alliance of App Based Transport Workers), gig work organisers can share tactical knowledge and coordinate international actions. While these worker-led campaigns have not always resulted in direct wins, they have certainly contributed to shifting the public narrative around the gig economy — moving the public debate beyond the initial promises of flexibility and freedom to a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and risks faced by these workers.
As a result, we are seeing more and more national governments introduce specific legislation to address some of the pressing issues in the sector. 2021 was a particularly hopeful year for gig workers with the historic ruling of the UK Supreme Court on Uber. The court clearly declared that Uber drivers are limb (b) workers with all the benefits and rights that apply to this status. While there have been similar court decisions in countries like Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, and most recently the Netherlands, the UK Supreme Court ruling marked a turning point on the debate over workers’ (mis)classification. In a matter of days, Uber was forced to announce that they would offer employment contracts to their entire UK fleet. In a cynical twist of events, Uber was quick to brand itself as the only platform offering employment rights like minimum wage to its drivers, after spending five years fighting in courts to deny their employer responsibilities. Nonetheless, Uber’s minimum wage policy still contravenes the UK Supreme Court mandate by failing to compensate drivers for the wait times between trips. Furthermore, the company has shown no sign of interest in extending similar benefits to other countries in which it operates.
Another highly anticipated development in the gig economy sector was the approval of the so-called ‘ley rider’ in Spain. Following a similar Supreme Court ruling and after long negotiations with industry and union leaders, the Spanish government enacted a law that categorises food delivery riders as employees rather than self-employed. Effectively, the new law shifts the burden of proof of employment relationship from the worker to the platform. Furthermore, the legislation also demands platforms to provide information on the algorithmic systems that determine how the work is performed. This law, while ignoring all other types of platform work, was praised as a positive step towards ensuring basic protections for one of the most precarious sectors in the economy. However, platforms’ reactions to the law raises concerns of whether it will manage to do just that. While Just Eat Takeaway celebrated the law and even started negotiating the first collective agreement with a union in the sector, all other major platforms were fast in securing plans to circumvent the legislation. Uber Eats opted for outsourcing its workers through a subcontracting model, a common practice in other countries to avoid legal responsibilities. More radically, Deliveroo announced its departure from the Spanish market as a result of the law. Most interesting was the case of Glovo, the Spanish multinational, that announced it would only hire 2,000 of its riders as employees. The platform aims to keep most of their fleet as independent contractors by making some changes to their management model, like allowing workers more freedom to set their fees. This decision was soon followed by protests from workers arguing this new model would lead to a race-to-the-bottom in wages by incentivising workers to accept lower fees per ride.
While it is important that governments take concern in regulating the platform economy, efforts to date are still quite fragmented and uncertain. The latest example from Spain shows how easy it is for platforms to enter and leave national labour markets at will or find creative ways to carve out loopholes in labour regulations. This is even more concerning with cloudwork platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, which serve global markets with a highly fragmented workforce and a complete oversight of national legislation. Furthermore, public and policy attention is predominantly focused on the more visible examples of platform work like food delivery and ride-hailing. Thus, these conversations often ignore the effects on other sectors that are equally impacted by platformisation, like cleaning and care services, both of which have a majority female and migrant workforce who face additional risks at work.
Although there are signs that the tide is slowly turning against exploitative practices in the gig economy, there is still much to be done to improve working conditions for the growing number of gig workers worldwide. If the experiences of the past year can tell us something, it is that relying on government regulations and legal actions alone will not bring about the type of radical change that gig workers across the world need today. In fact, it has become abundantly clear that in order to build a fairer future of platform work, we need all actors — investors, consumers, policymakers, platforms and workers — to work together.
While the actions of these stakeholders are often conceived as independent, recent evidence proves that they are most effective when working in conjunction. A perfect example of this was experienced just last week in Greece. After the Greek delivery platform Efood announced to some workers that they would have to change their status from employees to ‘freelancers’, both workers and consumers mobilised against the new policy. Customers reacted by boycotting the app through a viral social media campaign under the hashtag ‘cancel_efood’. The campaign was so effective that the app’s rating on Google Store dropped from 4.5 to 1 star. Simultaneously, Efood riders organised two massive mobilisations with thousands of riders taking over the streets of Athens. Surprisingly, the effects took little time to materialise. The platform was not only forced to back down on their policy to make workers independent contractors, but after the second mobilisation agreed to offer workers unlimited contracts. This is a perfect example of the power that consumers and workers, when working together, can have in shaping the future of the gig economy.
The Fairwork project was born with this very idea in mind of encouraging all stakeholders to play an active role in improving standards in the gig economy. With this in mind, we have launched a global pledge campaign to encourage organisations that — in different ways — engage with digital labour platforms to publicly demonstrate their commitment to decent working conditions in the gig economy. Organisations like businesses, universities or charities can show their support by only using platforms that have demonstrated a commitment to fair working conditions. Local governments and administrations can commit to introduce meaningful regulation that encourages minimum standards for platforms operating in their areas, or which are eligible for public funding. Similarly, investors or rating agencies can play a crucial role by making sure that they, and their clients, invest only in platforms that offer decent labour standards.
The platform ratings that the Fairwork Project publishes in a growing number of countries and segments of the gig economy can serve as valuable guidance for stakeholders that want to make conscious and responsible decisions about how they engage with platforms in their daily activities. In this way, we hope to reinforce the turning tide by publicly rewarding those platforms that have heard the call and are beginning to adopt more socially responsible practices. Such a broad alliance of actors would also send a clear sign to other platforms that they can no longer get away with the often-deplorable working conditions that the gig economy has become famous for. It is time for all of us to show gig workers that they are not alone in fighting for a fairer future of work.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Reshaping Work.