Does the World Really Have 435 Million Online Gig Workers? (Le Monde, Sept. 15, 2023)

The World Bank recently released a comprehensive report titled “Working Without Borders: Promise and Peril of Online Gig Work,” describing the evolving landscape of online gig work worldwide. In an article by Le Monde, La bonne dynamique du travail à la demande dans le monde, symbolique de la flexibilisation de l’emploi, I comment on the report’s findings.

The World Bank report analyzes the phenomenon of “online gig work”, which encompasses freelancing and micro-tasking. Drawing on the results and approaches of the Online Labour Observatory, Oxford Internet Institute, the World Bank researchers estimate a staggering 154 to 435 million individuals engaged in online gig work, constituting 4.4 to 12.5% of the global workforce.

One noteworthy conclusion from the report is the rapid growth of online gig work in the Global South compared to the Global North. This surge is attributed to the proliferation of local platforms playing a pivotal role in extensive subcontracting chains.

However, skepticism arises when the report authors, despite acknowledging the challenges of online gig work such as precariousness and lack of social protection, assert that these tasks “promote the economic inclusion of young people, women, and low-skilled workers.”

In response, in my comments on Le Monde, I pointed out that while the report is significant in highlighting the escalating trend of online gig work, especially in the post-Covid era, it should not be too quick to present this micro-work as a panacea or a satisfactory situation. Online gig work on platforms introduces risks reminiscent of traditional informal labor, prevalent in many Southern countries. The risk of exploitation and social dumping into less protected and regulated labor markets is a pressing concern.

The World Bank’s suggestion for collaboration between businesses, local platforms, and governments to strike a balance between flexibility and protection is met with skepticism. I, for one, raise the question of whether this is a sufficient response in the era of AI, as online gig work increasingly shifts towards micro-tasking and machine learning solutions.