A newly-published study from scholars at Oxford University investigates the situation of the estimated 70 million people around the world who make their living in the gig economy through freelancing platforms like Freelancer.com and Fiverr. Through a combination of face-to-face interviews and a remote survey of digital freelancers in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, the authors gauged how workers in this substantial segment of the global economy felt about the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of work. TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas outlines the study’s key findings:
The study paints a mixed picture, with — on the one hand — gig workers reporting feeling they can remotely access stimulating and challenging work, and experiencing perceived autonomy and discretion over how they get a job done: A large majority (72 percent) of respondents said they felt able to choose and change the order in which they undertook online tasks, and 74 percent said they were able to choose or change their methods of work.
At the same time — and here the negatives pile in — workers on the platforms lack collective bargaining so are simultaneously experiencing a hothouse of competitive marketplace and algorithmic management pressure, combined with feelings of social isolation (with most working from home), and the risk of overwork and exhaustion as a result of a lack of regulations and support systems, as well as their own economic needs to get tasks done to earn money.
Augmenting the competitive nature of the digital gig economy, the study found, is an imbalance of supply and demand for these workers’ labor: More than half the workers surveyed said there was not enough work available to them. People performing low-skilled tasks on these platforms must take a large number of gigs to earn an adequate income through them.
The challenge of making a living in the digital gig economy without highly specialized skills has also been explored in studies of Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” platform, which allows organizations to outsource bite-size “human intelligence tasks” for small payments. “Turkers” in the US have reported earning less than minimum wage; while these workers have been pushing for changes in the Mechanical Turk system to protect them from exploitation, the millions of freelancers who live in developing countries have even less power to make demands of the platforms they use for work.
Freelancers lack many of the protections formal employees enjoy, especially when they are working for clients from other countries. This includes protection against harassment and mistreatment by their clients. The freelance hiring platforms Fiverr and AND CO teamed up earlier this year to create a standardized freelance contract that would afford their users some built-in protections against sexual harassment, among other rights. Practically, however, these protections may be difficult to enforce, especially across international borders.
Another important finding from the Oxford study was that despite the flexibility these platforms ostensibly provide, their built-in rating and reputation systems serve as a form of “algorithmic management,” forcing freelancers to continually satisfy very demanding clients or risk being filtered out of new client searches by the platforms’ algorithms. A majority of respondents to the survey said they had to work at very high speed and to tight deadlines. Sometimes this means working “intense unsocial and irregular hours in order to meet client demand.” This algorithmic management, the authors charge, contributes to overwork, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation among workers.
Algorithmic management is a fairly new subject, but one that is receiving greater attention as the number of contingent workers making a living through online platforms grows. A 2016 study looked at the concept in the context of Uber, observing the ways in which the ride-sharing platform controls drivers’ work habits, including when and where they work, through technological systems even as the company does not act as their employer and does not technically “manage” them.