Just a click away - but someone has to deliver it, and under what conditions? (Photo: George Hodan)

Poor quality online work more prevalent in low-opportunity EU regions

A new report published by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) highlights how platform work could be exacerbating inequality growing in the European labour market, and especially within member states themselves.

Basically, it examined if regions with low availability of quality offline jobs led to more people taking more precarious online jobs.

In the volatile and crisis-ridden European economic context, online work has grown in popularity through the adoption of technology that can help organise work, and manage and monitor workers. According to the ETUI report published in February, Juggling Online Gigs with Offline Jobs, online roles are more prevalent in European regions where there are very few opportunities to get into traditional jobs.

Previous studies have mainly analysed the reasons why people choose to accept online or platform jobs, which are often precarious and low paid — moreover studies were mostly focused at the level of individual countries, making it hard to tease out pan-European trends.

Using data from a cross-national representative Internet and Platform Work Survey carried out by the ETUI between spring and autumn 2021, the two authors of the report, Wouter Zwysen and Agnieszka Piasna, senior researchers at the ETUI, complied information on work patterns of 36,124 individuals from 14 European countries.

"Our goal was to see the interconnection between online and offline work. Through our data, we were able to see what the local situation is in terms of unemployment, job quality, chances of getting a job, socio-demographic profiles, and then compare whether there is more or less of a platform economy in that region", says Piasna.

The results reveal a tight correlation between the quality of traditional work and the appeal of online work, demonstrating a tendency for European workers to switch from one to the other, driven by increased economic and job insecurity.

Just to get some definitions straight, the two researchers consider internet work to be all those jobs mediated online such as click work, IT tasks, copy-editing up to jobs matched via apps or platforms performed on location — driving or delivery work — and in the private sphere — care work, tutoring or home care; as defined in the report, individuals who "match themselves to an actual online work platform that algorithmically matches workers with customers, collects customer ratings and handles payments" are labelled as platform workers.

Zwysen said: "The condition of the internet economy and the platform economy is not optimal. It tends to rely on people to do low-paying standard work. Which leads to the question: why are these people still doing it?"

Previous studies have focused on quantifying the benefits of increased flexibility, but this research goes deep into the regional economic variations of the European countries under observation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what emerges is that online work is more present in those regions with high unemployment and low employment rates, indicating that people are driven to online work through lack of other, more stable opportunities.\n \nPiasna states that "In a global perspective, the Global South provides most of the online workforce. Customers, on the other hand, are mostly located in the richer countries of the Global North. However, this pattern is not reflected in Europe: there is no clear division between European countries. The most obvious division is within countries, as it follows the patterns of job instability or income inequality".

Italy, Spain, Germany

In Italy, for example, internet work is more common in central and southern areas than in northern ones — the latter economies are historically healthier than the former — while main platform work is most prevalent in Sicily and Sardegna, where manufacturing work is significantly lacking.

Similar variations are found in Spain, with a higher concentration of online workers in the east of the country and in the capital, Madrid.

Germany reveals a much more complex pattern: eastern regions, such as Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, are generally less penetrated by platform work than western regions. The emergence of gig work thus does not appear to be a generalised trend but depends heavily on the dynamics of traditional jobs at the regional level."

The European labour market faces significant stagnation and because of post-pandemic economic consequences and the ongoing war in Ukraine, labour will face further crises.

Because of this, online work may be a solution for many more individuals in the near future. "If we assume that the economic crisis and the cost of living crisis will deepen, then we might expect more people shifting to online labour markets", affirms Piasna. Young people seem to be the most inclined to work online, suggests Zwysen, stating, however, that "it is very likely a cohort effect, as young people are more digitally literate than other workers, and are therefore more prone to take up online work".

Delivery, for instance, is attracting more and more young workers because of its accessibility. European countries have been trying to regulate delivery platforms more carefully but incidents and economic damage among riders who are poorly protected are the order of the day, and reactions from labour providers verge on the grotesque.

In Italy, for example, the story of the young rider Sebastian Galassi, who died while making a delivery in Florence on behalf of Glovo, a Spanish delivery multinational, has caused quite the stir. The day after his death, a text message was sent to his mobile phone from the company notifying him of inappropriate conduct.

The European Parliament addressed the issue by 'pointing to the importance of minimum wage protection for platform workers, especially for low-skilled online and on-location platform work', when the pandemic started. In December 2021, the European Commission proposed a directive to improve the working conditions of workers employed on digital work platforms. This proposal would have an impact that attempts to clarify the employment status of workers.

But according to Piasna, the core of the platform workers' negotiations continues to be what has historically been the focus of collective bargaining carried out by workers and trade unions: "unpaid hours, lack of control and knowledge with respect to the work schedule, but above all and most generally a low wage."

The localised lack of traditional work has therefore pushed workers to turn to online work, struggling to get a decent wage out of poorly regulated traditional jobs. The ETUI report also demonstrates a precariousness that already stands within the European traditional labour market, which online work actually makes more evident.

Both authors agree that "the dynamics in online work are reproducing the dynamics in the conventional labour market: they tend to share the same deregulation patterns so typical of precarious work."

Furthermore, according to Piasna "many traditional companies start to deploy part of the workforce in exactly the same way as platforms do. Algorithmic management of freelancers, for example, is actually a much broader phenomenon that has also taken place in more traditional business".

It is therefore crucial to protect workers, through common policies in order to dismantle precariousness.


This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

Author Bio

Pierluigi Bizzini is a freelance journalist in Sicily, working with the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and @algorithmwatch.