Digital labour platforms have changed the traditional employment landscape by offering a plethora of new work opportunities for various skill sets. The key argument for platforms is that they act as intermediaries that connect supply and demand, democratising access to work.
For instance, platforms like Upwork or Free.fi facilitate contractual arrangements for freelancers in fields ranging from writing to programming. Similarly, logistics platforms like Wolt and Yango offer remunerative opportunities for people who want to put their skills and assets – e.g. a car or an e-bike, to use.
Platform companies argue that they enable workers to exercise autonomy over their schedules, allowing for greater work-life balance, and provide avenues for incremental income generation, sometimes even irrespective of geographical constraints. Previous research has noted the role platforms play in providing work opportunities across national borders (Wood et al. 2019) and a means for making a living as a migrant (Lam & Triandafyllidou 2022).
There has also been evidence of the role gig economy platforms play in times of uncertainty, e.g. recession and inflation (Huang et al. 2019). As uncertainty increases, more people turn to flexible work opportunities provided by digital labour platforms to complement traditional employment or out of necessity.
New work opportunities
When discussing new work opportunities enabled by digital platforms, it is difficult to ignore the ongoing regulatory debate on whether people working through platforms should be classified as employees or independent contractors. Courts across the world have ruled in both directions. The narrative by the EU seems to be towards classifying a greater proportion of people engaged in work through platforms as employees of the platform, rather than as independent contractors, but the jury is still out.
While important, the issue of legal status should not take away from the benefits digital labour platforms already provide to the economy. Overall, the platform economy provides work opportunities across three primary layers.
First, platform companies themselves provide new jobs. For example, Wolt has more than 1000 employees in Finland alone, working across a multitude of roles in support services, engineering, design, operations, marketing, sales, etc.
Second, gig economy spurs the development of a broader ecosystem that provides services and products for platform companies and/or their users, as well as facilitates entirely new business models that enable new types of value creation. Many gig workers for example use light entrepreneurship services such as ukko.fi to handle their invoicing. Huuva, a company offering ghost kitchen facilities and staff for restaurant brands, would not be able to make its business model work without food delivery platforms providing the necessary infrastructure, i.e. a marketplace for matching restaurants, end users and delivery couriers.
Third, digital labour platforms offer individuals new opportunities for building a portfolio of skills and expertise, to complement traditional salary, or to earn flexibly between life situations. A creative freelancer might for example start working on a platform such as Fiverr, build up experience and a portfolio of completed projects, and then continue to traditional employment or start a new business. On the other hand, digital platforms offer low-threshold work opportunities, too. For example, micro-mobility platforms such as the e-scooter company Lime contracts self-employed ‘Juicers’ – paid per completed gig – to maintain its e-scooter fleet.
There is more to be done
In Haaga-Helia’s AlgoAmmatti-project, we have explored the concept of professional growth in the context of digital labour platforms. In essence, we have tried to better understand how the platform economy could be developed so that it works better for everyone.
Our research has highlighted that particular gaps in the current platform worker’s lifecycle are the transition periods, especially moving from one platform to another or moving from platform work to traditional labour or higher education. Further, the gaps are exacerbated for migrants, whereby non-natives have a more difficult time navigating the transition periods due to e.g. language barriers or residence permit systems.
Overall, there is a need for platform companies operating in Finland to provide more assistance for platform workers across periods of transition. This could mean e.g.
- facilitating data portability between platforms,
- providing certificates or micro-credentials that capture experience gained while working on a specific platform, or
- providing training and development opportunities for learning the local language or setting up a business.
Platform companies should also be incentivised to better integrate platform workers into their internal recruitment pipelines, making it easier for individuals to move from working on the platform to working for the platform.
Based on our findings in the AlgoAmmatti-project, we also recommend platform companies to increasingly include platform workers’ voice in how the platform is developed – not just as an inspiration for product development, but as an integral part of the decision-making process throughout the development cycle (Tuomi & Ascenção 2023).
As the platform economy seems to be here to stay, there is a need for continuously examining how new ways of working may best be integrated into existing institutions and norms, so that the result is not just economically viable but also socially sustainable. There is still much room for platform companies to develop their practices and processes so that the end results serve the modern working life better.
Huang, N., Burtch, G., Hong, Y., Pavlou, P. 2019. Unemployment and worker participation in the gig economy: Evidence from an online labor market. Information Systems Research, SRRN.
Lam, L., & Triandafyllidou, A. 2022. Road to nowhere or to somewhere? Migrant pathways in platform work in Canada. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space.
Tuomi, A., Ascenção, M.P. 2023. Deliberative governance for tourism platforms. Annals of Tourism Research 103, 103647.
Wood, A. J., Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., & Hjorth, I. 2019. Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy. Work, Employment and Society, 33(1), 56-75.