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Online Labour: The Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - iLABOUR (Online Labour: The Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

The 'gig economy' or 'platform economy' has emerged as a key theme in debates around digitalisation and the future of work. It can be defined as "people using apps and websites, commonly known as platforms, to sell their labour".

The gig economy consists both of work that is transacted via platforms but delivered locally, and work that is transacted and delivered remotely over the Internet. Though locally delivered gig work has received much attention, surveys suggest that the remote type makes up a similar proportion of many labour markets. Globally, 163 million workers are estimated to have registered with online labour platforms that facilitate remote forms of gig work, of which about 14 million are active.

The iLabour project examines how this platformization of labour markets is changing the rules or "institutions" that govern how labour markets work. To some extent platforms extricate workers and employers from national institutional frameworks, such as employment law and collective bargaining. But they are not free "laissez-faire" markets: they impose their own, often programmatically enforced rules or institutions. For example, a leading marketplace instated a global minimum wage of 4.00 USD/h. With hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of registered workers in 180 countries, this company is making important labour policy decisions that influence businesses and individuals from London to Manila.

The objective of the iLabour project is to lay bare the politics and institutions of these next-generation labour markets, focusing especially on the online gig economy. What are the most influential rules or institutions in the online gig economy? Whose interests do they reflect, and through what rule-creating processes are they made? How do workers express collective voice in this new market?

We tackle these questions through a combination of conventional social research methods and innovative digital research methods, on both virtual research sites (online labour markets and workers’ online forums) and physical research sites (platform companies' premises and worker gatherings). The results open up entirely new vistas in labour market research and policy debate.
Work package 1: Overview and quantification of online labour markets

To obtain a quantitative overview of the online gig economy, we built the "Online Labour Index", an automated data collection system that collects data from 11 major online platforms in real time and compiles them into an online equivalent of conventional labour market statistics. Among other things, the data reveals that the global market for online gig work almost doubled in size from 2016 to 2021. Our system automatically publishes the data openly at onlinelabourobservatory.org. We have published two academic articles describing the system, and our data is used by many other researchers and organizations, including in OECD, World Bank, and ILO flagship publications. In 2021, we completed a successful technology transfer process supported by an ERC Proof-of-Concept Grant where the technical and financial maintenance of the system was transferred to the ILO. This way, the system will continue to operate and publish data beyond the end of the iLabour project.

Work package 2: Online labour market institutions

To identify influential rules and policies (ie. institutions) in the online gig economy, and how those rules are created, we reviewed existing literature on online labor markets and the gig economy, studied the user interfaces of major online labor platforms, and negotiated access for qualitative/ethnographic fieldwork at a major online labor platform company. A team member conducted a 1-year ethnographic study, combining traditional ethnographic methods of participant observation, in-depth interviews, and document analysis, with a digital ethnography of the platform’s online interactional spaces. This resulted in an extensive and unique dataset, unparallelled in its coverage - including data from a full year of etnographic fieldwork inside the platform, of the platform’s leadership team, of core strategic projects, and of the platform’s users. The data is used in academic publications.

Work package 3: Online labour movements

To study how platform workers organise and express collective voice in the online gig economy, we collected data from gig workers' public online discussion forums (N=1100). This data was analysed geographically in to map where in the world online platform worker contestation happens. This map of platform worker contestation was then used inform the choice of ethnographic fieldwork sites: San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles and New York City, London and Manila. Ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the aforementioned places in 2017 yielded 71 semi-structured interviews (20 US workers; 8 UK workers; 35 workers in the Philippines; 8 freelancer advocates) and participant observation of a dozen freelancer community events. Based on this data we have published articles in leading academic journals, explaining why and under what conditions online gig workers join in collective action, and against whom.

Work package 4: Shifting boundaries and networks

Based on cross-cutting analysis across the different work packages, the PI Vili Lehdonvirta wrote a book titled "Cloud Empires: How Digital Platforms Are Overtaking The State and How We Can Regain Control". The book is published by MIT Press in September 2022. An Italian translation has been confirmed.
The project advanced the state of the art in multiple ways. Our data science research revealed the geographic structure of the online gig economy: most workers are in Global South countries, most employers in the Global North, but with significant variation between different types of work. Our research on the institutional structure of the online labour market revealed the power of platform companies in setting the rules, and how reputational lock-in makes it difficult for workers to exit platforms. Our research on workers' collective action adapted theories of collective action for digital labour markets and documented new forms of worker voice. The book "Cloud Empires" presents a synthesis of how digital marketplace platforms rose to power and how national policy makers can respond.
A map showing the top worker occupations in the online gig economy, by country, in September 2018.