By Emma Samman for ODI.

The ‘gig economy’ – where digital platforms such as Uber or Clickworker help workers and clients find one another – is changing the way we work. Estimates suggest its value globally could reach $63 billion by 2020 (up from $10 billion in 2014), and that 48 million people are registered on digital microwork or online freelancing platforms alone.

The impact of the gig economy on workers is hotly debated, and has been the subject of high-profile court casesOur new research on the gig economy in Jordan, conducted in collaboration with International Rescue Committee, finds that it has the potential to create economic opportunities for vulnerable groups.

One such group is Syrian refugee women, many of whom want to workbut are constrained by limited networks and restrictions on travelling alone. Increased consumer demand for services and goods bought online provides work opportunities through digital platforms, much of which is in sectors where Syrian women already work, and some of which can be done from home. But the gig economy also poses challenges that will need to be overcome if it is to offer stable, decent work that truly benefits those doing it.

  1. Clarity around regulation
    In Jordan, refugees’ legal rights to take on the new work opportunities that the gig economy offers are unclear. The Jordan Compact, agreed in 2016, aimed to increase work permit allocations, but it is still not clear how gig-economy work fits in. A first step could be for the government to convene a social dialogue around gig operations, worker experiences, and links with labour market regulations including work permits, like the UK’s recent Taylor review.
  2. The (in)stability of gig work
    Proponents of ‘gig work’ argue that it provides flexibility. But, on the other hand, demand is also likely to fluctuate. While it is not yet clear whether Jordan’s gig economy can provide enough work for sustainable livelihoods – particularly for vulnerable workers – there are some more promising models that gig companies in the country could emulate to provide greater security. Samasource, for instance, seeks to provide jobs to underserved communities with fixed working hours and at least a country-specific minimum wage.
  3. Protections for workers
    Gig workers are typically classified as independent contractors and as such lack workplace protections like paid maternity or sick leave. This makes them and their families vulnerable to economic shocks. Some companies, like care.comare finding innovative ways to extend protections to gig economy workers. Under their scheme in the US, ‘Benefit Bucks’ part of the commission from each service purchased via the platform goes into a portable benefits scheme that workers can draw upon. But, while such a scheme would be a good start, governments should adapt national social protection programmes to the realities of gig work to make a real difference.
  4. Safety in private homes
    Some gig work takes place in clients’ homes (e.g. beauty supply, domestic work) or involves pick-up and delivery (e.g. catering, laundry). Companies must therefore make special efforts to protect workers. Here, mobile technology can help. In Bangladesh, the ‘Banglalink Emergency’ app enables workers to send instant SMS alerts to friends or family in an emergency. Building apps like this into platform technology would be a quick win for companies operating in Jordan, and a vital improvement for workers.
  5. Online security, privacy and personal data
    On-demand platforms hold detailed data on their users, including personal, banking and other potentially sensitive information. Many refugees already feel vulnerable in their host communities, so this can raise additional concerns around privacy and security. Companies need to alleviate worker’s concerns about data privacy, while still allowing service providers to conduct necessary background checks to ensure safety on all sides.
  6. Organizing for better working conditions
    Gig workers often have difficulty organising and advocating for themselves because they are so dispersed. This is doubly difficult for refugees in Jordan, who are not formally allowed to associate. Platform cooperatives enabling workers to own the platform technology and capture the profits from their work offer one potential avenue for collective action. In Jordan, agricultural cooperatives have worked with the government to secure refugee work permits, providing a model which could be used in other sectors.
  7. Digital connectivity and literacy
    Many workers in Jordan do not use smartphones and may not have high levels of digital literacy. In both camps and urban areas, refugees also have limited internet access due to Wi-Fi availability and network coverage and, for women, gendered social norms also constrain their digital access. As companies move platforms entirely online – and away from SMS or telephone-based notifications of work – this may limit refugee women’s abilities to use them. To ensure the gig economy provides equal opportunities to all workers, policies must focus on overcoming these societal and practical constraints.

Photo by: Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0)