The International Labour Organisation has issued a report calling for a coherent policy response to the rapid growth of the digital economy.  According to the ILO, digital labour platforms have increased five-fold in the last decade. Around 11% of the EU workforce have said that they have already provided services through a platform.

The report focuses on two main types of digital labour platforms:

  • Online web-based platforms where tasks are performed online and remotely by workers (such as Upwork); and
  • Location-based platforms, where tasks are performed at a specified physical location by individuals such as delivery and taxi drivers (such as Deliveroo and Uber).

The challenges for workers relate to working conditions, the regularity of work and income and the lack of access to social protection, freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

However, businesses also face challenges relating to unfair competition, high commission fees and a lack of transparency regarding data and pricing.

Digital labour platforms also blur the distinction between employees and the self-employed – an issue vividly illustrated by the recent decision of the Supreme Court in relation to Uber drivers, the latest in a raft of cases to examine the more nebulous in-between category of ‘worker’.

A further issue is the use of algorithms, which are increasingly replacing humans in allocating and evaluating work and administering and monitoring workers, a point also made by the European Commission in its current consultation on protecting workers providing services through online platforms.

As digital labour platforms operate across multiple jurisdictions, the report says that international policy dialogue and coordination is needed to ensure regulatory certainty and the application of international labour standards.  It calls for global social dialogue and regulatory cooperation between digital labour platforms, workers and governments, which could lead over time to a more effective and consistent approach towards a number of objectives to ensure that:

  • Workers’ employment status is correctly classified and is in accordance with national classification systems;
  • There is transparency and accountability of algorithms for workers and businesses;
  • Self-employed platform workers can enjoy the right to bargain collectively (such as influencers);
  • All workers, including platform workers, have access to adequate social security benefits, through the extension and adaptation of policy and legal frameworks where necessary; and
  • Platform workers can access the courts of the jurisdiction in which they are located if they so choose.

Classification of employment status is an ongoing source of headache for many organisations in the UK.  It is fundamental for determining what rights (if any) an individual can expect to receive, such as National Minimum Wage or paid holiday, and yet it is often unclear whether someone classes as an employee, worker or self-employed – with the tests developed through case law tending also to be very fact specific.  The Government’s Good Work Plan in response to the Taylor Review suggested it would introduce detailed proposals and legislation to simplify the matter of classification, but we are still waiting for this.

Digital work platforms are key for many sectors, but media organisations in particular may make use of them in relation to so-called “micro-tasks” such as translation, editing and writing tasks as well as marketing and of course influencers. 

The issue is very topical and clients should keep an eye on developments – and, of course, get in touch with their Lewis Silkin contact for contract, regulatory and employment advice!