Changing employment in the age of labour platforms

22.04.2021

Пандемия коронавируса изменила мировой рынок труда. Количество людей, работающих удалённо, увеличивалось в течение всех 2010-х гг., однако именно 2020 год оказался настоящим прорывом. Новые обстоятельства создали условия для развития цифровых бирж труда и теперь их более 800 по всему миру. Ими пользуются до 22% европейцев, причём, похоже, что эта цифра скоро ещё вырастет. И хотя эти платформы, казалось бы, должны обеспечить равные возможности, на самом деле на них по-прежнему процветает дискриминация работников. К примеру, люди из развивающихся стран получают гораздо меньшие доходы, чем из стран развитых. В своей статье Джайати Гош рассказывает о последствиях прихода нового мира

One of the most significant socioeconomic changes accelerated by Covid-19 must surely be the rise of digital labour platforms. Of course, platform-based employment had already been growing exponentially before the pandemic. But the combination of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, and the consequent greater reliance on remote work, has dramatically increased both their spread and intensity of use.

Until recently, there had been relatively little discussion of what the rapid proliferation of digital employment platforms meant for the nature of work and the employment relationship. But an important recent report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) provides answers to many questions – and raises several more that policymakers and regulators need to address.

The rise of digital employment platforms

What exactly is platform-based work? Platforms are effectively digital marketplaces, connecting producers and consumers of goods and services – and in the case of employment platforms, connecting workers with those who would use their labour.

Digital labour platforms differ significantly from employment exchanges of old, owing to their diffuse and apparently non-hierarchical nature. They also give the impression of hands-off objectivity, by supposedly simply aggregating agents’ desires and responses, although the algorithms used in such aggregation have been shown to generate their own forms of hierarchy and discrimination.

The ILO report focuses on two main types of digital labour platforms. Location-based platforms provide work or services within a specified physical area. They include taxi and delivery services, domestic services like cleaning and repair, and various forms of care provision.

Online web-based platforms, meanwhile, cover tasks that could be performed anywhere in the world. These could be specific short-duration assignments like annotating images or transcribing videos, or involve complex and highly skilled work such as translation, legal or financial services, design and software development, and data analytics.

Both types of platform have expanded dramatically, but people tend to be more aware of location-based platforms because of their near-ubiquity in some places. The ILO estimates that the number of platforms worldwide increased from 142 in 2010 to almost 800 in 2020, with online web-based platforms tripling in number while location-based platforms grew almost tenfold.

The problem of measurement

Today, all kinds of businesses – from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups and small enterprises seeking people to perform specific tasks – rely on online employment platforms. In general, platforms drastically reduce search costs for both workers and those who would use their services.

Estimates of the number of people who obtain work through these platforms are hard to come by, partly because it is not clear how many regard them as their only source of income. But some surveys suggest that the proportion of the population in Europe that has done some platform work ranges from 9-22 per cent.

Most digital labour platforms operate by accessing and sharing information about workers with those who might use them. Their own employee base tends to be very small compared to the number of workers with whom they deal indirectly.

For example, the freelance work platform PeoplePerHour has only around 50 employees, but as an intermediary it provides work for around 2.4 million skilled workers. The ILO report provides much new information, based on a global survey of 12,000 platform workers. Workers engaged in location-based platforms generated the bulk of their earnings from that source, and around one-third of online-platform workers (more in developing countries) relied primarily on this employment for their income.

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