Workers' rights under threat as online work surges

Digital labour platforms have increased five-fold worldwide in the last decade according to the ILO’s latest World Employment and Social Outlook 2021 report. The challenges for platform workers relate to working conditions, the regularity of work and income, and the lack of access to social protection, freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. Working hours can often be long and unpredictable. Half of online platform workers earn less than US$2 per hour. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed many of these issues.


The ILO report focuses on two main types of digital labour platform: online web-based platforms, where tasks are performed online and remotely by workers, and location-based platforms, where tasks are performed at a specified physical location by individuals, such as taxi drivers and delivery workers. Its findings are based on surveys and interviews with some 12,000 workers and representatives of 85 businesses around the world in multiple sectors.


From ride-sharing apps like Uber and online marketplaces like UpWork linking freelancers and clients, to software that allows employers to oversee workers, digital platforms have transformed the nature of work. The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up the shift to a digital economy, changing the way work has been organised and regulated for decades. With job losses, millions have become gig workers, providing on-demand driving, delivery or childcare services.


New opportunities - but a threat to workers' rights


Digital labour platforms are opening up opportunities that did not exist before, particularly for women, young people, persons with disabilities and marginalized groups in all parts of the world. But the new opportunities are blurring the previously clear distinction between employees and the self-employed. Working conditions are largely regulated by the platforms’ terms of service agreements, which are often unilaterally determined. Algorithms are increasingly replacing humans in allocating and evaluating work, and administering and monitoring workers.


In many cases the work is poorly paid - with half of online workers earning less than $2 an hour - and lacks access to traditional employment benefits, like collective bargaining, insurance and work-related injury protections.


More than 70% of taxi drivers reported their average daily number of trips and earnings decreased after a platform took over the market.


Digital divide


The costs and benefits of digital platforms are not shared equally across the world. Ninety-six per cent of investments in such platforms are concentrated in Asia, North America and Europe. Seventy per cent of revenues are concentrated in just two countries, the United States and China.


Work on online web-based platforms is often outsourced by businesses in the global North, and performed by workers in the global South, who earn less than their counterparts in developed countries. The ILO found that workers in developing countries earn 60% less than those in developed countries, even after controlling for basic characteristics and types of tasks. This uneven growth of the digital economy perpetuates a digital divide and risks exacerbating inequalities.


The control and ownership of data is an important issue


The control and ownership of workers' data is another emerging concern, the ILO said.

The data from work is becoming a bankable commodity.


The emergence of a few giant players creates risks as they have access to vast amounts of information created by workers, such as how long it takes to complete a task or their locations, which digital platforms can use as they see fit, the ILO said.


Important objectives


ILO General Secretary Guy Ryder called for workers' rights already established in the "analogue" world - such as health benefits and bargaining rights - to be protected in the world of platform work. "It's often a very one-sided work relationship," he said, adding that this imbalance could be addressed through greater dialogue and regulatory cooperation between workers, platforms and government. The ILO points at following important objectives:

  • Workers’ employment status is correctly classified and is in accordance with national classification systems.

  • There is transparency and accountability of algorithms for workers and businesses.

  • Self-employed platform workers can enjoy the right to bargain collectively.

  • All workers, including platform workers, have access to adequate social security benefits, through the extension and adaptation of policy and legal frameworks where necessary.

  • Platform workers can access the courts of the jurisdiction in which they are located if they so choose.



Sources: ILO World Employment and Social Outlook 2021 report, Thomson Reuters Foundation