Measuring the new world of online work
Labour markets are changing dramatically, with millions now finding and carrying out work online. However, as official statistics only capture traditional labour markets, an EU-funded project has been tracking the growing world of online work.
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Over the past decade, growing numbers of people have been finding employment and carrying out work via online gig platforms. These websites provide the platform for tasks requested by companies, such as writing, translation, data science and marketing, which can then be carried out remotely by workers living anywhere in the world.
But even as this new type of work disrupts traditional labour markets, official employment statistics continue to focus on more conventional labour markets. This has resulted in policymakers and researchers lacking vital information as to how the online labour market operates and the conditions under which its employees are working.
In response, the EUs iLABOUR project, funded by the European Research Council, has developed the Online Labour Index, the first global economic indicator dedicated to tracking the online gig economy. The index measures the supply and demand for online freelance labour by tracking the number of projects and tasks distributed across different countries and occupations in real time.
We are trying to provide policymakers with this data to give them an idea of how big this whole new online market actually is, says principal investigator Vili Lehdonvirta of Oxford University in the UK. The idea behind the Online Labour Index is to function as the online labour equivalent to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development index or the International Labour Organizations statistics, which are mainly resources for policymakers and researchers to refer to and to see how certain phenomena are shaping the world of work.
The index is important, adds Lehdonvirta, because it will help answer socially relevant questions such as: Is this market still growing? How many people are working for these platforms? How much are they being paid? Empirical data could also help researchers and policymakers who are investigating gig workers labour rights, he says.
Fuelling academic research
The project team created the index which automatically updates daily by tracking projects posted on the five largest English-language online labour platforms, including Upwork, PeoplePerHour and Amazon Mechanical Turk.
With a handful of platforms, you are already covering a very large share of the markets global activity, says Fabian Stephany, economist and data scientist at the University of Oxford, who is in charge of developing the Index. But we're currently extending the Online Labour Index to include smaller platforms that have a specific focus on, for example, the Philippines, or on Russian-speaking countries.
Although the Index is still expanding, the iLABOUR team has already used this data to write a series of academic papers and reports on topics ranging from how online labour can bridge the urban-rural divide to how Fortune 500 companies are using the online gig economy to find freelancers.
Because the tool is freely available via the iLABOUR website, the wider research community has been able to use this data to investigate a variety of other issues. A lot of research spin-offs, students and research colleagues are already using the data to answer very particular questions about freelance work in the Philippines or Spain, says Stephany. Economists at Oxford Universitys Saïd Business School are also accessing the data to investigate global price differences in online labour markets.
A new global standard
While data produced by the iLABOUR project has created an important resource for researchers, there has also been huge interest from policymakers. Over the past three years, the project team has been invited to present their work at numerous policy events organised by the European Commission, the OECD, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, and the European Unions statistical office, Eurostat.
In addition, principal investigator Lehdonvirta was appointed to the European Commissions High-level Expert Group on the Impact of the Digital Transformation on EU Labour Markets and data from the Online Labour Index was used for the groups final report.
After the project ends, I think the online labour index will live on and continue to grow but probably under the umbrella of an institution like the United Nations International Labour Organization, says Stephany, adding that this would help the work to make an even greater impact than has been achieved so far.
This is important because online labour is determining the day-to-day realities of an increasing share of the world's working population. That is why we must continuously scrutinise this new world of work, he concludes.