The gig economy is a new work arrangement where freelancers find employment on digital platforms, creating new opportunities for value creation and income possibilities. Despite the many positives of being a gig worker, be it independence, flexibility, and variety to name a few, this economy also comes with a lot of uncertainty for its workers.
An economy with poor labour rights?
You have probably heard of some of them, Uber, Foodora, AirBnB, Upwork, Fiverr. These are only a few of the platforms which are part of the gig economy. It is estimated that around 160 million workers operate in the gig economy worldwide.
Many are worried that workers are taken advantage of on these platforms, and that they are not treated as employees, rather as labour that easily can be replaced.
Platforms use algorithms to determine whether workers are allowed to stay on the platform, and workers have no recourse if they are banned from using it. Therefore, gig workers are subjected to so-called ‘algorithmic cruelty’. Furthermore, platforms often do not provide training, leaving workers to fend for themselves in building the necessary skills to navigate the platform, clients and niches of the market. Some workers even find themselves abused by clients.
Local gig workers united
When workers are classified as freelancers, the platforms tend to relieve themselves of many of the responsibilities that are typically associated with more traditional employers.
Because of this, many gig workers across the world have taken highly publicized collective action against the platforms to protest against poor working conditions. In August of 2019, nearly two hundred Foodora workers could be seen cycling around the streets of Oslo, striking for their rights to better working conditions. In this case, the strikers were successful. Being able to meet up, and mobilize locally was likely a contributor to their success.
However, for gig workers who seek to improve their working conditions on a global scale, it can be challenging to coordinate collective action.
Can global gig workers be stronger together?
Previous research has investigated how gig workers develop solidarity and take collective action against the exploitative practices of the platforms. However, this research is limited by focusing mostly on solidarity in contexts of local gig worker communities, and has largely neglected the remote gig economy.
But are international job platforms ideal places to succeed in mobilizing solidarity amongst gig workers?
New research by Associate Professor Peter Kalum Schou and Associate Professor Eliane Bucher showed that when gig workers realize they have differing interests and identities, conflicts tend to arise. Furthermore, it showed some interesting and rather surprising results; when workers identify as freelancers and not as employees, they become more guided by narrow self‐interest. This is more likely to occur in global gig communities.
Their research was conducted on users on the online labour platform Upwork. They looked at how gig workers responded to a policy change by Upwork that affected their working conditions in a negative way. What did this research find? researchers found that:
- There was initial outrage against Upwork.
- After the initial first reactions, people started to realize that they had differing interests, and that they perhaps “did not share the same fate”.
- After some time, a division became even clearer. Those who had experienced more success on the platform saw themselves more as ´independent business owners`, using the platform as a service. Others saw themselves more as ‘employees’ of the platform. The latter group also saw collective organizing as the clearest way forward, in opposition to the former.
This division eventually led to a breakdown in the initial solidarity between the workers.
A race to the bottom?
On a global gig platform such as Upwork, chances are that employees are more likely to see themselves as freelancers. Instead of acting as a space where workers built up solidarity and joined forces, the online community on Upwork became a space for conflict.
What does this tell us? Rather than gaining rights and better labour conditions, workers in the global gig economy may find themselves in a race to the bottom, enabled by gig workers who would rather be rid of competition than collectively organising. Meanwhile, the platforms are able to take a greater cut.
The article is written by Emma Skjelten Daasvatn, student assistant at Nordic Centre for Internet and Society.
Schou, P.K. & Bucher, E. (2022) Divided we fall: the breakdown of gig worker solidarity in online communities. New Technology, Work and Employment, 1– 21. https://doi.org/10.1111/ntwe.12260