Coherent and coordinated international effort is required to protect gig economy workers and businesses

Special remarks by Dagmar Walter, Director, ILO DWT/CO-New Delhi at the International Webinar on New Forms of Employment with reference to Gig and Platform Working in the BRICS and Global South

Statement | Online Meeting | 09 March 2022
  • Shri Sunil Barthwal, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India
  • Dr. H. Srinivas, Director General, VVGNLI
  • Constituents attending from the BRICS countries,
  • Academia
  • Colleagues
  • Ladies and gentlemen,
Namaskar and a very good day to you all!

It is my pleasure and honour to share some thoughts with you in this Webinar on New forms of employment in the gig and platform economy in the BRICS and global South countries.

This international workshop is organised by V. V. Giri National Labour Institute to celebrate the 75th year of India’s independence, in collaboration with the BRICS network of Labour Research Institutes, ILO & ILO-ITC in Turin, and the South-South Network of the ILO.

Gig and platform workers, have gained a lot of attention over the past decade. Platform work is a growing phenomenon in most parts of the world and BRICS countries are rather in the forefront. The growth of platform work has been reinforced since the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and the increase in remote working arrangements. According to a recent study published by the ILO, digital labour platforms have grown five-fold over the past decade.

The rise of digital platforms has also generated a lot of interest in the policy circles especially in the G20 and BRICS Ministerial meetings, where the opportunities and challenges related to the platform economy were deliberated quite extensively last year and some of these issues will further gain attention as these platforms penetrate several sectors in the economy.

The ILO has been working on the issues related to platform and gig work since 2015. The International Labour Conference in 2019 adopted the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work underlining the need to respond to challenges and opportunities in the world of work relating to the digital transformation of work, including platform work, for promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

In February last year, the ILO released its flagship report on “The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work”, which provided a broad overview of how platforms are bringing about the transformations. It provides a comprehensive global picture about the opportunities and challenges faced by workers and businesses on digital platforms by drawing on extensive surveys and interviews conducted with 12,000 workers in 100 countries, and with about 85 businesses around the world in multiple sectors.

The report highlighted that the rise of digital labour platforms has the potential to create new opportunities, provide flexible work arrangements for certain workers, such as women, persons with disabilities or young people, but there are some challenges.

Platforms are also changing the organization of work and work processes. They are increasingly redefining how economic relationships are established through technology between workers and clients or customers, all over the world. Platforms are also shifting the responsibility of investing in capital assets and operational costs to the workers, which makes platforms asset-light while at the same time transferring the risks to the workers.

One of the major transformations that the digital platforms are bringing about is blurring the previously clear distinction between employees and the self-employed. This has created new challenges for workers’ well-being and working conditions, especially in middle- and low-income countries.

Digital platforms are also changing the way workers access the labour market. Sometimes workers have to pay to work, through a commission or a fee, and usually these fees are determined unilaterally by the platforms. Workers also often struggle to find sufficient well-paid work to earn a decent income, and many do not have access to social protection, which has been particularly concerning during the pandemic. They are also often unable to engage in collective bargaining that would allow them to address some of these issues.

Overall, challenges are magnified for women workers, particularly in developing countries.

Let me share with you some of the findings from our global report:
  • The average hourly earnings in a typical week for those engaged on online web-based platforms are US$3.40, while half of the workers on these platforms earn less than US$2.10 per hour. Workers in developing countries tend to earn less than those in developed countries, and it is less than 60% on freelance platforms.
  • The average hourly earnings on ride-hailing platforms range between US$ 1.1 to US$8.2 depending upon the country. And in delivery platforms it ranges between US$0.9 to US$3.50.
  • There is very high intensity of work especially on ride-hailing and delivery platforms, where workers work about 65 hours per week on ride-hailing and 59 hours on delivery platforms to be able to earn a sufficient income.
  • Finally, there are large gaps regarding social protection coverage.

Platforms are also transforming the world of work through algorithmic management practices. These are altering how workers are hired, monitored, evaluated and remunerated. Worker’s performance is evaluated based on ‘ratings’, which is a new form of exercising control over the worker. And if the ratings are low, workers are automatically deactivated from the platform without providing any explanation. Moreover, algorithms are far from neutral, they are coded by human programmers based on a set of norms and instructions; if bias is fed into the system, it can result in discriminatory practices.

Governments have started to address some of the issues related to working conditions on digital labour platforms.

In some cases, they have extended social security and Occupational safety and health (OSH) coverage to platform workers; they have classified them as employees, and not self-employed; or they have ensured they could access data related to their platform activities.

Soft-law initiatives have also been undertaken in national jurisdictions by governments and social partners. Trade unions have also been helping associations of platform workers with legal challenges.

But what our experience till now has shown is that country-level solutions are not enough because platforms operate all over the world and across multiple jurisdictions.

So, the only way to effectively protect workers and businesses is through a coherent and coordinated international effort. Given the diversity in many of the regulatory responses to platform labour, it would be vital to have some form of international regulatory dialogue and policy coordination.

This would assist in clarifying some of the regulatory uncertainties and to reinforce the fact that universal labour standards are applicable to all workers, irrespective of their contractual status and irrespective of which country the worker is based in. This would be an important step forward. Platform workers should enjoy the right to associate, to bargain collectively, and to be protected against discriminatory conduct and unsafe workplaces.

There has also been a promising initiative at the level of the European Commission, where a legislative proposal to address the issues around employment relationship, working conditions, collective bargaining and algorithmic management has been submitted.

At the ILO the Governing Body has decided to hold a Tripartite meeting of experts on decent work in the platform economy, which is scheduled to take place in October this year.

Among several recommendations about what needs to be done, some of the most important would be to:

• ensuring workers’ employment status is correctly classified and is in accordance with national classification systems.
• ensuring transparency and accountability of algorithms for workers.
• ensuring that self-employed platform workers enjoy the right to bargain collectively.
• ensuring that all workers, including platform workers, have access to adequate social security benefits, through the extension and adaptation of policy and legal frameworks where necessary.

Finally, it is important to address the challenges in order to harness the fullest potential of technological progress and digitalization, including platform work, to create decent jobs and sustainable enterprises, as has been noted in the Call to Action for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, which was adopted at the International Labour Conference in June last year.

So, clearly there is a need for us to act together to ensure these platforms provide decent work opportunities and foster the growth of sustainable businesses.

We are looking forward to your views on the opportunities and challenges to workers in the global South, especially in BRICS countries as a result of the digital transformations underway, as well as policy suggestions to address some of them.

I wish you all a fruitful discussion in today’s webinar and hope you enjoy the deliberations.

Thanks for your kind attention.