The growth of online work platforms has introduced new opportunities to the working population, but it has also put pressure on the workers’ rights it took generations to ensure, according to a new report (pdf) from the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
According to the World Employment and Social Outlook 2021 report, digital labour platforms have grown fivefold in the last decade.
The platforms take two main forms: those that are web-based, where workers perform tasks online and remotely (an example being this article); and those that are location-based, where the platform organises tasks which are then performed at a location, including taxi drivers and delivery workers.
The first type has opened up employment opportunities to groups previously excluded from the traditional workplace, including young people, people with disabilities and others like mothers with young children. The second group has created new working opportunities where none existed before, for example in food delivery.
However there is a downside, the report shows.
The new ways of working have to some extent eroded the traditional rights attained by the labour movement over the last century and more. Those include working conditions, the regularity of work and income, 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 report says.
“In addition, some platforms have significant gender pay gaps. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed many of these issues,” says the report.
Another problem exposed by the report is the blurring of the difference between freelance workers and employees. Typically, freelance workers sacrifice some of the protections offered by full-time employment for the flexibility and autonomy freelance work entails.
However as the boundaries become blurred, employers exploit the system by employing workers as freelance operators (Uber is a notorious example) while to all intents and purposes they are being treated as full-time employees – but still without the rights that status brings.
“Digital labour platforms are opening up opportunities that did not exist before, particularly for women, young people, persons with disabilities and marginalised groups in all parts of the world. That must be welcomed,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.
“The new challenges they present can be met through global social dialogue so that workers, employers and governments can fully and equally benefit from these advances. All workers, regardless of employment status, need to be able to exercise their fundamental rights at work.”