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.
Short-term assignments are becoming more popular among skilled professionals in India, the Economic Times reported this week, with an emerging “white-collar gig economy” in IT implementation, marketing, design, and other fields reflecting these professionals’ desire for more flexibility and control over their careers:
It’s early days, but as more Indians opt for new work arrangements, interest is growing across age and experience brackets. Leading the charge are young employees with five-plus years of experience, confident in their abilities to do well even without the cushion of a permanent job, and mid-career people who have built up a nest egg and now want more flexibility and a work-life balance. …
Three months ago, EY launched GigNow, a tech platform that connects people seeking short-term employment options or flexibility with EY in India. Sandeep Kohli, national director for HR at EY, told ET that over 70 such jobs are on offer on the platform and almost 700 people have applied. Initially, it started with consulting and now it has added finance and HR gigs. The next step is to launch a GigNow for women.
While Indian professional culture has historically put a premium on strong ties between employees and their employers, times are changing. Indian Millennials, like young professionals around the world, are putting greater emphasis on autonomy and work-life balance. Greater flexibility is also seen as a key tool for encouraging Indian women to remain in the workforce after having children. To that end, Indian entrepreneurs are establishing online recruiting platforms and coworking spaces specifically geared toward connecting women with flexible work or facilitating the launch of their own businesses.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics published new data on Thursday, for the first time since 2005, on the size of the country’s “contingent workforce”—defined as “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary,” as well as those employed in “alternative work arrangements.” The data in the new report is from May 2017, at which time the bureau says 5.9 million US workers (or 3.8 percent of the overall workforce) were employed in contingent jobs:
Using three different measures, contingent workers accounted for 1.3 percent to 3.8 percent of total employment in May 2017. … In February 2005, the last time the survey was conducted, all three measures were higher, ranging from 1.8 percent to 4.1 percent of employment. In addition to contingent workers, the survey also identified workers who have various alternative work arrangements. In May 2017, there were 10.6 million independent contractors (6.9 percent of total employment), 2.6 million on-call workers (1.7 percent of total employment), 1.4 million temporary help agency workers (0.9 percent of total employment), and 933,000 workers provided by contract firms (0.6 percent of total employment).
Wednesday’s data release does not address the size of the “gig economy,” per se. The BLS added new questions to the new version of its Contingent Worker Supplement to identify individuals who found and were paid for gig work through a mobile app or website, but says it is still evaluating that data and will address it in a later release. Surveys over the past few years have produced widely divergent counts of America’s gig economy, estimating the “gig workforce” at anywhere from 600,000 to 54 million people. Much of this discrepancy has to do with how gig economy is defined: Freelancers, who Upwork and the Freelancers Union predict could be a majority of the US workforce in as little as 10 years, are sometimes included in this definition, other times not.
In any case, the BLS’s finding that the contingent workforce represented a smaller share of the workforce in 2017 than in 2005 is raising eyebrows, given that much independent research has found the gig economy to be growing.
The freelance hiring and management platforms Fiverr and AND CO have teamed up to create a new standardized work contract for freelancers that they are calling the first of its kind to include built-in protections against sexual harassment, Ephrat Livni reported at Quartz on Wednesday:
The new contract explicitly states that harassment by clients or staff isn’t tolerated, which may seem obvious but isn’t a fundamental aspect of most freelance arrangements. The agreement also gives freelancers the right to terminate an arrangement if offending behavior continues after the client has been informed of it. A contractor who quits on these grounds must then be paid in full for the project or the month—depending on the terms of their arrangement with the client—and must receive that pay within 30 days.
Sounds decent, right? Well, it is. But it’s also not much, as the companies also admit. “We recognize this is a small step in a much longer journey, but it’s an important one,” they state.
After all, a big problem with harassment in the workplace is that it’s awkward to report in the first place, and all the more so when the perpetrator of the abuse is responsible for the paychecks. Despite the new clauses, contractors who are harassed by the clients who hired them aren’t very likely to feel comfortable demanding that abuses stop—not if they want to work for that client again. And few freelancers who are in an office on a contract basis will find it easy to complain about abusive staff with permanent positions.
These caveats highlight one of the fundamental perils of a labor market in which more workers are self-employed and fewer enjoy the protections that come with a formal employment relationship with a single organization. The #MeToo movement has sparked a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment and misconduct in US workplaces, which has sent organizations and governments scrambling to find better ways to protect workers against these crimes. Most of these laws and policies, however, focus on employees, with independent contractors getting less robust protection, if indeed they have any at all.
Writing these protections into contracts is one way to help address the abuse of freelancers; another is to enshrine them explicitly in the law.
The second annual Future Workforce Report from the freelance hiring platform Upwork finds that even though most US managers expect more of their team members to work remotely in the coming years, most also say their organization lacks a specific policy on remote work:
Sixty-four percent of hiring managers feel that their company has the resources and processes in place to support a remote workforce, yet the majority (57 percent) lack a remote work policy. …
Over half (55%) of hiring managers agree that remote work has become more commonplace as compared to three years ago. Five times as many hiring managers expect more of their team to work remotely in the next ten years than expect less. In the next ten years, hiring managers predict that 38 percent of their full-time, permanent employees will work predominantly remotely.
Among those companies that do have remote work policies, many respondents indicated that these policies are evolving to become more flexible and inclusive, which is helping them attract talent in a tight labor market:
Nearly half (45%) of hiring managers said their company’s work-from-home policy has changed in the past five years, with 60 percent saying it has become more lenient and inclusive. This increased inclusivity is making it easier for companies to find the talent they need. Over half (52%) of hiring managers that work at companies with work-from-home policies believe hiring has become easier in the past year.
Fast Company’s Ben Paynter flags a study from HoneyBook, a business management and networking platform for creative entrepreneurs, which compared over 200,000 invoices submitted to clients through its platform and surveyed 3,100 users to find that women in this sector are earning about 32 percent less than their male colleagues:
The average male creative on HoneyBook makes $45,400 per year. Factor in that 32% reduction rate, and the average woman makes just $30,700 for similar services. Another issue is that many of those being underpaid may not be aware that a man doing the same job could get paid more by the vendor. Among those surveyed, the majority were sole proprietors who may be paying more attention to their business flow than standardized rates; 63% reported thinking that pay among genders was likely to be equal.
The annual Freelancing in America survey, released this week by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, paints a picture of a freelance workforce that is growing much faster than the US workforce in general. The report estimates the total number of US freelancers today at 57.3 million, or 36 percent of the total American workforce. That number has grown more than three times faster than the overall workforce in the past three years, and if this rate of change holds, freelancers are projected to compose a majority of the US workforce by 2027. Millennials are leading the trend in this direction, with 47 percent of millennial workers saying they freelanced.
The survey of over 6,000 US adults also finds that freelancers are doing better than their traditionally employed peers at preparing themselves for their professional futures: 55 percent of freelancers said they had engaged in some kind of re-skilling activity in the past six months, compared to 30 percent of regular workers. In general, 65 percent of freelancers said they were updating their skills as work evolved, while just 45 percent of others said so.
Freelancers are also feeling the impact of technological change more acutely, with 49 percent saying their work had already been affected by AI and robotics, against just 18 percent of full-time employees. At the same time, technology is also bringing them more work, with 71 percent saying the amount of work they had found online had increased in the past year.
Another interesting finding is that while many people lump freelancers in with the gig economy, freelancers don’t: Only 10 percent of freelancers in the survey said they considered themselves a part of that economy. Indeed, we’ve seen from other research that the gig economy, properly speaking—meaning workers who make a living through platforms like Uber—is just one component of the new trend toward contingent and temporary employment in the US labor market. Fast Company’s Ruth Reader considers why freelancers might be rejecting the “gig economy” label: