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Leveraging digital labour platforms to provide decent work opportunities

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A gig worker

In recent years, digital technologies have radically transformed and penetrated different sectors of the economy, disrupting the traditional foundation of the labour market.

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) revolution and the Internet have set in motion a wave of new processes and products, stimulating competition and productivity growth.
  
This has led to digital labour platforms, a new way to organise work and business. There is no gainsaying that the digital economy is cutrently transforming the world of work.
 
Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in remote-working arrangements, further reinforcing the growth and impact of the digital economy. 
 

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In the World Employment and Social Outlook (WESO) 2021 report, recently released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work, it stated that digital labour platforms, which mediate work, have rapidly penetrated several economic sectors as a result of innovations in digital technologies. 
 
Digital labour platforms are now a vital part of contemporary life — they allow people to arrange a ride, order food and access a host of other services online. They accomplish this by connecting clients or customers with workers who undertake these tasks or ‘gigs’.
 
The past decade has seen the global rise of ‘gig workers’ or ‘platform workers’, with platforms like Uber, Gojek, Deliveroo, Rappi, Upwork and Topcoder.
  
Digital labour platforms have created unprecedented opportunities for workers, businesses and society by unleashing innovation on a massive global scale. Yet at the same time, they pose serious threats to decent work and fair competition.
  
Even as the global distributions of investment in digital labour platforms and revenues are geographically uneven, digital labour platforms globally generated revenue of, at least, $52 billion in 2019.
 
The report explained that digital labour platforms are a distinctive part of the digital economy as they allow individuals or business clients to arrange a ride, order food or find a freelancer to develop a website or translate a document, among many other activities and assignments.  
  
It stated that by connecting businesses and clients to workers, they are transforming labour processes, with major implications for the future of work. 
   
It classified digital labour platforms into two broad categories: online web-based and location-based platforms.
  
The report stated that the development of digital labour platforms has the potential to provide workers, including women, people with disabilities, young people and migrant workers, with income-generating opportunities.
 
In developing countries, in particular, such platforms are regarded as a promising source of work opportunities, leading many governments to invest in digital infrastructure and skills. 
 
Indeed, businesses are also benefiting, as they can use these platforms to access a global and local workforce to improve efficiency and enhance productivity and enjoy wider market reach.
 
The opportunities provided by platforms are however accompanied by some challenges.
 
For workers, these relate to the regularity of work and income, working conditions, social protection, skills utilisation, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. 
 
The report stated that many of these challenges are quite pronounced for workers in informal and non-standard work arrangements and are increasingly affecting those engaged on digital labour platforms, who are a relatively fast-growing share of the workforce. 

The report stated that about 18 per cent of the revenues generated were concentrated in Africa and two other regions, while Asia and North America have the largest share.
 
The seven largest technology companies globally had cumulative revenue of over $1,010 billion in 2019, and most of these companies invested heavily in digital labour platforms. 
 
The business strategies adopted by digital labour platforms comprise four key elements to enable platforms to establish a market base, leverage network effects and expand rapidly.
 
Given that digital labour platforms operate across multiple jurisdictions, it stated there is a need for some form of international policy dialogue and coordination.
 
The report suggested that a way forward would be to engage in a process of global social dialogue aimed at ensuring that the opportunities arising from digital labour platforms are leveraged, and the challenges addressed so that digital labour platforms are best positioned to provide decent work opportunities, foster the growth of sustainable enterprises and contribute towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 
   

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The ILO’s independent Global Commission on the Future of Work recommended the development of an international governance system that sets certain minimum rights and protections and requires platforms and their clients to respect them.
 
It also called for a ‘human-in-command’ approach to algorithmic management, surveillance and control to ensure that “final decisions affecting work are taken by human beings.”
 
The ILO’s Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work called for “policies and measures that ensure appropriate privacy and personal data protection, and respond to challenges and opportunities in the world of work relating to the digital transformation of work, including platform work” to promote inclusive and sustainable development, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
 
These objectives, the report said, could be best achieved through social dialogue among the relevant stakeholders, most particularly the digital labour platforms, the platform workers, and their representatives and governments.
 
It stated that a concerted effort across multiple international forums and organisations would be critical to ensuring that digital labour platforms develop further in a manner that strongly contributes to inclusive and sustainable development.
 
It added that such a process of regulatory dialogue and coordination should have at its core an effort to ensure that domestic laws regarding the fundamental principles and rights at work as well as other key legal provisions, such as those in respect of occupational safety and health and social security, apply to all workers, including digital labour platform workers.

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