Workers’ rights under threat as online work surges five-fold—UN

The Covid-19 pandemic has sped up the shift to a digital economy but in many cases the work is poorly paid.

Grabfood worker Indonesia
Grabfood worker wearing a protective mask rides along a street, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image: Reuters/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

Digital platforms have soared five-fold over the past decade, offering opportunities to some but also eroding workers’ rights, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Tuesday.

From ride-sharing apps like Uber and online marketplaces like UpWork linking freelancers and clients, to software that allows employers to oversee workers, digital platforms have transformed the nature of work, the UN’s ILO said.

“At their best, all these platforms provide new opportunities,” said Guy Ryder, head of the ILO, which surveyed 12,000 workers in 100 countries, 70 businesses and 16 platform companies in its first in-depth report on the platform economy.

“There are opportunities for disabled workers, for those in remote locations. There’s evidence that those who have been unemployed or marginalised might find their way into the labour market,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sped up the shift to a digital economy, changing the way work has been organised and regulated for decades. With job losses, millions have become gig workers, providing on-demand driving, delivery or childcare services.

But in many cases the work is poorly paid - with half of online workers earning less than $2 an hour - and lacks access to traditional employment benefits, like collective bargaining, insurance and work-related injury protections, the ILO found.

Platforms generally classify workers as independent contractors and their rights depend on the platforms’ own terms of service, not employment law.

The ILO found significant inequities in the platform economy, with workers in developing countries earning 60 per cent less than those in developed countries, even after controlling for basic characteristics and types of tasks.

More than 70 per cent of taxi drivers reported their average daily number of trips and earnings decreased after a platform took over the market.

Ryder called for workers’ rights already established in the “analogue” world - such as health benefits and bargaining rights - to be protected in the world of platform work.

“It’s often a very one-sided work relationship,” he said, adding that this imbalance could be addressed through greater dialogue and regulatory cooperation between workers, platforms and government.

The control and ownership of workers’ data is another emerging concern, the ILO said.

“The data from work … is becoming a bankable commodity,” Ryder said. “Questions of the appropriation and ownership of that data is a big, big issue.”

The emergence of a few giant players creates risks as they have access to vast amounts of information created by workers, such as how long it takes to complete a task or their locations, which digital platforms can use as they see fit, the ILO said.

Andrew Pakes, research director with the British trade union Prospect said data is the “new frontline of workers’ rights”.

“We need to get serious about these risks and take a stand before we sleepwalk into a new age of digital management and surveillance where employers hold all the cards,” he said in emailed comments.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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