Digital Labour

The changing strategies by digital labour platforms and its impact on freelancers in the Global South

Policy makers in the Global South have discovered digital labour platforms (e.g. Upwork, Freelancer) as a potential source for employment. In his blog-post of June 28, Brian Nicholson mentioned initiatives in Pakistan and Nigeria that train young people for online work. In the Philippines, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) organises so-called ‘rural impact sourcing’ workshops around the country. Despite using the term impact sourcing, these events have no connection with the original conceptualisation of impact sourcing which highlights how social enterprises hire and train marginalized individuals for digital work. These events are often sponsored by the country’s main internet providers and aim to make participants interested in becoming ‘Online Filipino Workers’ (as paraphrase of the well-known term Overseas Filipino Worker). Apparently, for policy makers in the Global South, the digital labour market is seen as an infinite source of employment that should be tapped rather than restricted or regulated. Such workshops also still present digital labour platforms as ‘global labour auctions’ in which everyone can participate regardless of his/her location as long as there is digital connectivity (for which an internet provider that you can sign up with is right at hand).

In reality, digital labour platforms (like in this case of Upwork) no longer function as a labour auction. In the past few years a number of measures have been taken by Upwork through which it increasingly benefits and favours a small number of successful, high-earning freelancers. The ease of entry for freelancers had created a situation in which even for jobs with limited remuneration dozens or even hundreds of freelancers would apply. With the platform still retaining a fixed percentage of the agreed remuneration as its fee, the so caused downward pressure on price formation also ate into Upwork’s revenues. Obviously, from a business perspective, it is not in Upwork’s interest to have too many freelancers competing on the platform, causing a downward pressure on price formation and the gains from the work performed to be spread too thinly. The introduction of a $3 per hour minimum wage in 2014 had been a first step attempt at ‘price support’ and additional value capture by Upwork. However, in practice it led to more projects being offered for a (low) fixed amount instead of for an hourly compensation. Therefore, Upwork needed a more drastic shake-up of its business model in order to generate more revenues for its investors.

Upwork’s transformation of recent years is best summarized as a change from labour facilitator to labour arbitrator (see Govil and Patnaik, 2014). The platform now no longer only provides a meeting place for the supply and demand of online labour but is directly involved in the recruitment of freelancers for clients and also handles pay-rolling (through Upwork Payroll). In 2016, it introduced Upwork Pro and Upwork Enterprise. In Upwork Pro clients receive help with drafting the project requirements and Upwork selects and shortlists premium freelancers for the job. Upwork Enterprise is aimed at larger organizations and involves the full-scale management of freelancers by Upwork. Upwork’s commission is no longer a flat 10 per cent, but varies with the size of the project to incentivize higher-value, longer-term projects. The main change for freelancers is that they can ‘buy’ their visibility in the search machine by taking a paid membership of $10 per month, which obviously benefits the financially stronger freelancers. An additional measure is the ‘job success rate’ of freelancers, an algorithmic score that apart from the ‘old’ job performance rating also includes such factors as whether the freelancer has won repeat and larger contracts, and experienced disputes with clients. It clearly favours freelancers who have managed to land longer term collaborations with single clients over those who tend to earn from multiple small gigs (which is more common among freelancers working part time).

Successful freelancers are now invited to join a talent pool which connects them to larger client projects. A catch is that those who accept, are required to be available for Upwork only (committing at least 30 hours per week). On the other side (and seemingly inspired by Taylorist management principles), Upwork has started to suspend accounts of freelancers who lack distinctive skills or who are not generating enough revenues. New freelancers (particularly those with ubiquitous skills) are also no longer automatically accepted on the platform. This means that Upwork now more actively intervenes in the pool of labour it offers to clients, making freelancers vulnerable to sudden policy changes by the platform. Once freelancers work via the platform, Upwork expects their loyalty and exclusive, full-time availability. However, Upwork does not offer any kind of social protection in return. Upwork tries to control (and discipline) its labour pool through negative measures (such as the fear of terminating the profile or reduce the visibility in the search machine). Here you can wonder how well aware they are of the everyday lives and responsibilities of their freelancers in the Global South.

This blog showed the contradiction between Southern policy makers who (still) view digital labour platforms as an infinite source for employment, and the platform which is tightening the grip on its pool of freelancers and which makes it increasingly hard for new entrants to join. Recent measures by the platform work against freelancers from the Global South, particularly the many of them working in the low-skill segment of the digital labour platform. By providing more services and introducing more rules, platforms like Upwork increase their influence on how freelance labour is globally traded and, in the process, try capturing a larger share of the value that they help to create. Upwork’s evolution from a discrete facilitator towards an ever more manifest, some may say obtrusive arbitrator, shows that in fact a new intermediary, equipped with new measures for disciplining labour, has been born. Not only does this require new legislation, it also requires a debate with platform owners with regard to their responsibilities towards their community of workers.

Govil, A. and S. Patnaik (2014). The Future of BPO: How Human Cloud and Infrastructure Cloud are changing the Game. Los Angeles: Avasant Research http://avasant.com/insights/digital/the-future-of-bpo-how-human-cloud-and-infrastructure-cloud-are-changing-the-game/

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