New Oxford report shows freelance and microwork platforms fail to provide minimum fairness standards for their global workforce

Millions of people across the world now work remotely for freelance and microwork platforms, creating a largely invisible workforce, often based in low-income countries, that offer outsourcing services to international clients and help power AI systems.

While online work has been associated with freedom and empowerment and a borderless labour market, a new report by from the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford, reveals that these ‘ghost’ workers often face low pay, risky and exploitative conditions, opaque disciplinary systems and little to no bargaining power.  The Oxford report calls for greater protections for gig workers across the globe.

In this new study, the Oxford researchers examine labour practices across ‘cloudwork’, also known as crowdsourcing, platforms, online sites that mediate jobs that can be done remotely from translation and design gigs to short microtasks that help train AI systems. Cloudwork is essentially gig work that can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. Cloudworkers are typically classified as self-employed or independent workers, drawing them out of the purview and protection of national labour regulations.

The Fairwork Foundation report, ‘Work in the Planetary Labour Market: Fairwork Cloudwork Ratings’ 2021,  rates the labour conditions of 17 cloudwork platforms based on research including surveys with 792 workers in 75 countries.

The report assesses each platform against the five Fairwork principles of Fair Pay, Fair Conditions, Fair Contracts, Fair Management and Fair Representation, giving each company a score out of ten. In the report, Jovoto and TranscribeMe top the league table jointly, awarded 7/10 by the Fairwork Fairwork team whilst major English-language platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, Rev, PeoplePerHour and freelancer.com were among those at the bottom of the league table, all scoring 0 to 1 points in the Fairwork ratings.

Lead author of the report Dr Kelle Howson, Researcher, Oxford Internet Institute said, “As more and more workers from a large variety of sectors and professions become subsumed into the cloudwork labour market, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they fall through the cracks of national labour protections.  As a result of this, all too often workers end up losing their right to a minimum wage, a collective voice and protection from discrimination and unfair dismissal. Regrettably, the scores in our report show that unfair and insecure work is the norm on most cloudwork platforms – a situation that calls for regulatory responses on a national and international level.”

Key findings from the 2021 cloudwork report:

  • Fair Pay – only 2 of the 11 platforms, Workana and Appen, had policies to ensure that the vast majority of workers earned at least their local minimum wage
  • Fair Conditions – 12 out of 17 platforms provided protection from the task-related risks in their daily work
  • Fair Contracts – only 5 of the 17 platforms analysed provided evidence of clear and accessible contracts or terms of service that did not require workers to waive key rights to legal challenges like class actions
  • Fair Management –over half of all platforms, 9 out of 17, had a formal due process in place enabling workers to appeal decisions like job rejections and account suspension
  • Fair Representation – only 3 platforms, Appen, Clickworker and Jovoto could demonstrate that workers had access to fair representation

Encouragingly, the study also found some platforms are committed to improving the conditions of their workers.  Six platforms in the study made changes to their practices and policies as a result of engaging with the research team. One platform, Workana, committed to ensuring workers earn above their local minimum wage.

Katia Cosic, Team Leader, Freelancer Services, Workana said, “Working together with Fairwork helped us a lot to make visible our opportunities to offer fairer conditions to the freelancers. Their support in recommending possible actions, many of which we have already undertaken, was also very helpful for us.”

A key feature of cloudwork is that the client and worker don’t need to be based near each other geographically, which makes this type of work different to other types of gig work, and serves to perpetuate global inequalities.

Explains Dr Howson, “As our report shows, online work on digital labour platforms can exacerbate labour market inequities, especially for workers who reside in lower-income countries who can experience location-based discrimination from platforms and clients based in the global north.

Nathan Pikover, Chief Operating Officer, TranscribeMe said: “It’s important to think about contractors as real people and not just numbers, and at TranscribeMe we believe that a community-focused worker management approach delivers better quality products while fostering a positive environment for the workers. The Fairwork team has helped us improve our processes in a way that is quantifiable and we appreciate the opportunity to participate in the ratings report.”

Professor Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography at Oxford Internet Institute, said:  “In our study, we present a snapshot of selected cloudwork platforms, to establish a baseline understanding of fairness in cloudwork, which we will build upon in future annual reports.  Just as cloudwork platforms can nimbly enter and exit markets, and can nimbly evade regulations, they can also easily do better. It will take a broad coalition of stakeholders, including platforms, workers and legislators to bring about a fairer future of platform work, but the actions taken by platforms in response to Fairwork scoring show it remains within reach.   We commend those companies who are stepping up but the prevalence of low scores in our report also demonstrates the urgent need for governments to intervene and find ways to protect workers in the digital labour market.”

As part of Fairwork’s commitment to making platforms accountable for their practices, the project team has also launched the Fairwork Pledge. The pledge aims to encourage other organisations who regularly make use of these invisible workforces to support best labour practices in the platform economy, guided by the five principles of fair work. Organisations have the option to sign up to the Pledge as an official Fairwork Supporter or an official Fairwork Partner.

Professor Graham adds “As part of our vision for a fairer future of work, we’re setting out a pathway to realise that ambition and one of the ways we’re doing that, in addition to calling for tougher regulation, is through the launch of the Fairwork Pledge.  We urge others to sign up to the pledge today and help our vision of fair work become a reality for all platform workers.”

This latest report builds on the findings of previous country specific Fairwork ratings reports for GermanySouth AfricaIndia and Ecuador.  The Fairwork team has also published reports on the impact of Covid 19 and the gig economy.

For more information please call +44 (0)1865 287 210 or contact press@oii.ox.ac.uk.

Notes for editors:

About the research

The Fairwork Project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC), UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Ford Foundation, and the International Development Research Centre’s Future of Work in the Global South initiative (FoWIGS).  The report findings are based on desk research, direct communication with platforms and surveys with gig workers on 17 platforms in 75 countries, between July and November 2020.

About the OII

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.