Short Answer – It Depends
Precarious work, or precarious employment, is a term with multiple meanings. In the ILO’s 2011 Symposium “Policies and Regulations to Combat Precarious Employment,” the following framework was used:
“Although a precarious job can have many faces, it is usually defined by uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively.”
A pervasive characterization of online platform work is that such work is inherently precarious. The ILO Country Office’s 2019 “Future of Work in Sri Lanka” report goes on to state:
“The platformisation of work will increase, rendering irrelevant conventional labour protection mechanisms. The platformisation of work has far-reaching implications, particularly in terms of restructuring the employer-employee relationship. Though the ‘gig-economy’ offers new job opportunities to part time and casual workers, it is also likely to reveal new inefficiencies and inequities. There is concern that the platform economy will create new forms of precarious work, eroding worker’s livelihoods and rights in significant ways.”
The above report is not alone in this characterization. The Fairwork Foundation’s report “The five pillars of Fairwork: Labour Standards in the Platform Economy,” notes: “The picture that emerges [of platform work] is one of a highly conflictual but precarious work environment that requires wide-ranging global approaches to counter the negative aspects of platform work.”
There is certainly some truth to this. Platform workers usually work without legal contracts in a market that is heavily skewed towards the buyer. They lack many of the protections afforded to the formally employed. They work for multiple clients and do not always know where their next gig is coming from. However, the characterization of platform gig work as precarious implies that this work is inherently dangerous, with workers especially vulnerable to poor payment and other forms of employer mistreatment. Is that always the case?
In some instances, yes. For example, a 2019 Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report on the gig economy in Kenya and South Africa noted that gig workers in Kenya in jobs such as ride-hailing and domestic work could face difficulties in expressing grievances to employers out of fear of losing their jobs. However, these types of dangers are not universal to all gig workers.
In LIRNEasia’s own study of online freelancing in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and India in 2015-17, it was found that many online freelancers worked part time, and often used their freelance earnings to supplement their regular income. As a result, they were not always wholly reliant on gig work to be self-sufficient. Furthermore, we encountered workers who willingly chose to freelance fulltime because they enjoyed freelance work more than regular employment, including the freedom of work time and workplace. We found that part time freelancers in Sri Lanka could earn LKR 15,000 – 20,000 per month while some could earn up to LKR 100,000 – 200,000 per month – well above the competitive market rates for similar jobs in traditional establishments. Reports of client difficulties (for example, clients taking work and refusing payment) were present but comparatively rare. The freelancers we encountered worked gigs in various jobs such as data entry, transcription, translation, graphic design, event planning etc.
It is important to note that just because work is uncertain, this does not mean it is uniquely “dangerous”. Gig work is always uncertain because the worker usually does not know when their next gig is coming. However, highly successful workers are able to build up networks of regular clients, and as they build up their reputations, they are able to attract more clients. Hence, it is possible for gig workers to earn good incomes, even if work is irregular. Many in fact accept this uncertainty as a trade-off for the flexibility of their work, and are aware of this trade-off when opting for this work. We did find in our research, however, that gig workers faced difficulties that the regularly employed did not face. For instance, freelancers found it difficult to get bank loans because they could not show salary slips. The same could be said for those who are likely to face difficulties in applying for visas, when they are unable to provide letters from employers as proof of a full-time job or regular income.
In sum “gig work” is an extremely broad category, including different types of work, differing earnings, and different service provider-client relationships. Gig work comes with a multitude of risks and benefits, which come in varying degrees of magnitude depending on the circumstances of that particular work. Simply because work is uncertain and lacking in conventional job structures and protections, we cannot automatically assume that it is dangerous or undesirable work. This is true of some types of gig work, and less true of others.