As technology continues to change the world of work irreversibly, its impact on the workforce and the need for equitable distribution of digital work gains continues to gain emphasis. This document, drafted through the consultations with JJN’s global research consortium highlights the role of public systems, the classification of platform workers, the challenges of collective bargaining and the implications for women in platform work. It outlines that path for further research and policy intervention to support worker well-being and sustainable platform models.
Technology is changing the world of work; the trend cannot be reversed, but ensuring that the gains from the digitalisation of work are equitably distributed calls for:
Public systems – policies, regulations, programmes – that institute effective and universal labour and social protections, social security, standards for occupational safety and health of workers, and investments in education and skills. Private players, civil society, workers organizations all have a role to play, but ensuring equitable access and coverage calls, first and foremost, for governments to take responsibility.
Public mechanisms that enable skilling, reskilling, and upskilling are required to enable workers to leverage digital opportunities, but these must be integrated with schooling and higher education systems. The opportunities to acquire the necessary capabilities must be equitably accessible to workers from different socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds.
A combination of government regulation and incentives, clearly communicated, to promote responsible business practices among platform companies, including on data sharing, privacy, and security, are critical.
Discourse, analysis, and regulation cannot apply a Global North lens to understanding the opportunities and challenges of platform work in developing countries. The services that many major global platforms provide, in response to consumer preferences, are similar between the Global North and Global South, but the impact that this ‘platformisation’ has on the quantity and quality of work and workers, varies significantly between the two. This is because external factors such as labour market composition and heterogeneity, governance capacity, and socio-cultural factors vary between the Global North and Global South. These contextual differences have a bearing on how platformisation plays out.
The notion that digital labour platforms present a path to formality is, so far, unsubstantiated. Theoretically, digital labour platforms offer the potential to make workers that may otherwise be disaggregated and informal, “visible”. By aggregating and registering workers, digital labour platforms present an opportunity to bring these workers under the purview of regulation and social protection. But for this to play out, platforms must share their data with governments.
Clarity on the classification of platform workers as either/when they are employees and/or self-employed is key to guiding effective regulation and redressal. By expanding the pool of workers that fall into the category of “self-employed/independent contractors”, platformisation of the economy is fuelling informality by expanding the number of workers that are beyond the purview of regulations, labour and social protections. The risk of economic volatility is borne by the worker alone.
Legalizing the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is essential to empowering workers to have a voice and to foster effective social dialogue. Classification of platform workers as independent contractors, the geographically dispersed nature of the platform workforce, and the non-traditional employment relationship between platforms and workers creates challenges for the mobilisation and collectivisation of platform workers. This reduces the bargaining power of workers and diminishes opportunities for effective social dialogue.
Digital labour platforms provide opportunities for income-generation, but few provide pathways for economic or career mobility. In many cases, especially for work that requires low cognitive skills, platforms take existing jobs and break them into smaller tasks, distributed amongst a geographically dispersed workforce. This limits the ability of workers to grow, and in many cases, leads to the deskilling of workers as they take up work that is below their skill level. In the case of entrepreneurs,while platforms provide access to wider markets, being able to leverage these opportunities for growth solely depends on the ability of the entrepreneur to access finance, take risks, upskill, and stand out amongst wider competition in the digital marketplace.
To have a positive impact on women’s labour force participation, improving access to skill-building opportunities and the provision of a supportive policy ecosystem are crucial. These policies should, for instance, include aspects such as childcare and safe transport for women, but all instruments of public governance — policies, regulations, budgets and programs — should adopt a gender lens. Many online spaces replicate the offline biases that have constrained women’s economic engagement and the visibility of their many contributions. The work to address these structural constraints and biases must continue whether women are working online or offline.
Working from home should neither be an expectation nor a compulsion for women – it should be a ‘real’ choice. Platform work provides women the flexibility to work from home and balance income generation and household work, but this flexibility keeps women homebound, which has a spillover effect on their freedom and mobility. Additionally, the disproportionate burden of household work on women limits the time they can dedicate to income generation, thus limiting the intensity and kind of tasks women engage with on platforms. This has the possibility of locking women into low-productivity and low wage work on platforms.
Policies that close the digital divide by improving digital access, literacy, and skills for women are critical to enabling them to engage in platform work. These efforts must build on a strong foundation of good education including foundational literacy and numeracy. Access to smartphones and mobile internet are important factors in facilitating access to digitally mediated work, especially location-based work. The gender gap in access to digital assets puts women at a disadvantage when accessing platformised job opportunities. This is especially true in Asia and Africa. Moreover, technological interventions have a greater chance of success when facilitated by a human interface.
More research is required on diverse platform models to highlight those that have invested in worker wellbeing, while being profitable. Understanding the conditions required for these platforms to thrive and grow is important to encourage all platforms to develop models that are aligned with better conditions of work and the extension of labour and social protections to workers.
These takeaways are a product of our own work informed by insights from our global consortium, funded by International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and is an outcome of consultations held with International Labour Organization, OECD – OCDE, European Commission, Mission of Norway to the EU, Geneva Macro Labs, U.S. Department of Labor and their M-Power partnership.
 In situations where platform workers have had the legal right to unionise, they have succeeded in organising a vast array of collective actions to improve their working conditions. For example, in Norway, delivery workers at Foodora, a Swedish food delivery platform, secured a landmark collective bargaining agreement with the company. This included a wage increase, reimbursement for equipment, extra pay during wintertime, and early retirement pensions for the workers with employee status. In India, the International Federation of App-based Transport Workers and Indian App-based Worker’s Union have grown into effective movements that have played a critical role in winning certain entitlements for gig workers.