Digital labour platforms are on the rise. Think of the “gig economy” and Uber drivers might spring to mind, but in almost all sectors, website and apps are springing up to match people up with paid tasks, projects or jobs. According to the ILO, there were at least 777 active platforms in 2020, around a tenfold increase since 2007/8. The Online Labour Index, which measured tasks on the biggest online labour platforms, shows a 65% increase in the number of online-based tasks between May 2016 and January 2022.
In many ways, this is great:
Workers can find opportunities to make money in their spare time, use their skills, and enjoy flexible ways of working. Platform work can also help members of marginalised groups (for instance, carers who can only work irregular hours and disabled people who may face discrimination) to enter the labour market and earn a living. Where informal work is prominent, a platform can provide a trusted route to payment, and access to better paid tasks across the world.
Consumers can quickly access services that are reliable and good value for money (think getting your dinner delivered instantly and affordably, hiring a babysitter who’s trusted by other parents you know, or finding someone local to unblock your gutters the same day).
Companies benefit from lower transaction costs (the costs of finding, hiring and managing workers) and plentiful, flexible and cheaper labour.
But with a growing proportion of the workforce/number of people working this way (in Europe, as many as 11 per cent of people may have worked in the gig economy in the last year), we need to think differently about how to make sure workers get a fair deal. Everyone deserves to have decent pay and working conditions, a fair say in how and when they work, and the means to provide for themselves and their family when they are not working (whether that’s because of ill health, retirement, family reasons or holidays).
As things stand, most platforms have been designed to meet the interests of the company and the consumer first and foremost. Relative to traditional employees, platform workers bear more risks (of not earning money or not being paid, or risks to their health, such as being exposed to Coronavirus while on the job), and shoulder most if not all the cost of providing for their non-work time. At the same time, platform workers are subjected to increased surveillance and performance management. UpWork, for instance, measures the keystroke and mouse movements of workers to determine their activity. Companies like UPS and Amazon use technology to track their workers’ whereabouts as well as the speed and efficiency of their work. More broadly, opaque and constantly changing algorithms determine access to, allocation and performance evaluation of work on many of these platforms. Often, there are limited channels for recourse and redress if workers disagreed with their clients and/or with algorithmic-generated decisions enabled by the platforms.
Unsurprisingly, many organisations are investigating this phenomenon, including the International Labour Organisation,The European Commission, and Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork Foundation. One emerging observation is that much of the discussion on solutions starts from a macro-level regulatory perspective which assumes the adequacy of existing categories for today’s workers. Another is that the focus tends to be on risk mitigation, with less attention paid to opportunities. In combination, these can lead to policy recommendations that are top-down and represent attempts to adapt the current systems to account for the new reality of platform working. For instance, the debate around whether Uber drivers should have employee status ignores the long-term need to think past the old dichotomy of worker versus self-employed, and design systems that can cope with a greater range of possibilities that are open to workers today.
A review of prominent literature on this subject showed that many workers globally have been involved in numerous surveys, interviews and focus groups. There have also been some recommendations for workers’ participation in the policy making process, such as through user-centred design and co-design approaches. Simply put, it is a methodology that involves users in the design process to help ensure that their needs are met. Indeed, some of the slickest and most user-friendly online services that define our consumer and citizen experience have been developed using the principles of user-centred design. We want to explore how these principles can be applied to policy around platform work. As a first step, we will run a user engagement and research exercise to gather in-depth insights into platform workers’ experiences and perspectives – positive and negative - using innovative digital/design tools. We hope this will give us a human-centred perspective on the issues and what needs to change as well as what aspects of platform working to protect and maintain.
As part of this open policymaking approach, we want to hear from you – what the future of work means to you, what does good work look like, etc. If you have ideas to help us shape this experimental approach, experience of platform working or of policymaking in this area, please get in touch!
We will be publishing a full literature review in the next few weeks summarising the state of the debate – so watch this space!
 The International Labour Organisation (ILO) released their flagship and comprehensive report on the platform economy, including interviews and surveys with a wide range of stakeholders. The ILO have also created a Global Commission on the future of work which provides recommendations for change.
The European Commission has proposed a Directive to improve working conditions for platform workers. A consultation has run alongside this with a wide range of stakeholders involved, including experts, workers and platform representatives.
Fairwork Foundation was created by the Oxford Internet Institute to highlight the best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy.