Creating digital workplaces that are pro-freelancers

To be effective on digital platforms, freelancers need to be entrepreneurial to ensure continual work flow via constant bidding


Information and communication technologies have given rise to global online labour markets that further offshoring and outsourcing. Crowdsourced paid work is a virtual mediated exchange, operated by platforms via the Internet, through which clients access freelancers—both strangers to each other—across the world for remunerative tasks of varying temporality and complexity.

These digital workplaces are beneficial to both clients and freelancers. Clients eliminate transaction costs and maximize profit. Freelancers find employment and enhance employability. Interestingly, India is ranked second among freelancer nations involved in crowdsourced paid work. Whereas freelancers working on these platforms express divergent views contingent on the site they use, academics and labour activists emphasize the importance of regulation in the interest of worker rights.

Indian freelancers engaged full-time in crowdsourced paid work view skilled, professional online job markets positively. One, these platforms offer the opportunity to earn a decent wage, use and develop skills and gain exposure to western clients and a different work ethic while enjoying the flexibility of working from home. Two, these sites have rules such as minimum wages and maintenance of decorum, transparency in platform processes and availability of platform-based redressal mechanisms. For Indians residing in Tier II and Tier III cities where opportunities in the local job market are not only limited but also marked by suboptimal conditions such as work overload, low and erratic wages, absence of career development avenues, lack of long-term safety nets and reliance on sycophancy, crowdsourced platforms offer a “big break”.

To be effective on the platforms, freelancers need to be entrepreneurial to ensure continual work flow via constant bidding. They have to be effective self-marketers and establish a stellar digital reputation based on client feedback and appropriate social skills. They must independently bear infrastructural costs and plan for long-term security. Freelancers see these requirements more as chances at self-development at best or minor challenges at worst, rather than as constraints. In any case, these circumstances are familiar in other settings, especially in the informal sector. Freelancers feel reassured that, apart from the aforementioned platform controls, clients are restrained in expressing their views as they seek to protect their interests.

Though clients have a say over appointments and payments as well as freelancer feedback, they are effectively reined in by platforms and freelancers. Client misbehaviour on the site, either tracked by the system or reported by freelancers, can be sanctioned if upheld. Additionally, freelancers can contribute publicly viewable comments about clients after the latter have evaluated them, and these comments serve as critical inputs influencing fellow freelancers’ decisions about those clients’ job posts.

Low-end, micro-task virtual labour markets do not receive reviews mirroring those of their skilled, professional online counterparts. Instead, they are described in distinctly less appreciative tones by freelancers across the globe including India. Inequality appears to be built in into these digital workplaces. Platforms operate to protect their own positions and further clients’ interests, with freelancers at the receiving end. Though the platforms retain the right to allow or deny freelancers entry to their sites, the criteria underlying their decision are not known publicly. Besides, platforms assume no responsibility for interactions and transactions between clients and freelancers, in effect, taking no stand on minimum wages or dispute settlement.

Nonetheless, platforms support clients in workforce management through technologies built into the site and approved partner services, with both mechanisms facilitating client controls yet concealing client identities. Whereas freelancer information is available to clients, the opposite is not true. Moreover, tasks must compulsorily be completed within a time frame or invite sanctions, though reviews and remuneration have no deadline. Further, clients can reject freelancers’ task submissions without justification and payment, and the latter possess no ownership of their work.

Despite the apparent unfairness of these platforms, unhindered by oversight owing to absence of regulation thus far, freelancers sign up to these sites in the hope of supplementing their income, with those from developing countries such as India also valuing the exposure to international clients. Yet, freelancers worldwide agree that returns are low, and consider participation on such platforms a stop-gap arrangement that cannot replace a primary job. Work and employment experts believe that freelancers’ engagement with such platforms reflects the wider context of job insecurity, unemployment, and underemployment.

Notwithstanding the response of Indian freelancers to the dichotomous platforms they are exposed to, academics and labour activists within the country and across the globe caution against these digital workplaces. They voice concern over the “borderless” nature of online labour markets, pointing out that platforms are largely “invisible,” exist “off-state” and operate outside the purview of legislation. Sorting out legal complications entails addressing which law is applicable given the multiple nations involved and identifying who the contractual parties are and what the nature of the contract between them is, with further questions on the scope of labour legislations which focus on “employees”.

Moreover, crowdsourced paid work dehumanizes workers and devalues work, facilitating casualization and informalization of the economy, with non-standard forms of employment pre-dominating. Organizing freelancers can be challenging since, apart from being spatially dispersed, they are kept “hidden” and “isolated” from one another through platform mechanisms that disallow or minimize their interactions. These apprehensions apply to all platforms, though they are particularly relevant in the case of low-end, micro-task online workplaces where worker rights are more blatantly disregarded.

Differences between the global north and global south sometimes surface on platforms when a few clients and freelancers from developed countries exhibit subtle or overt racism, triggered by perceived incompetence and wage differentials respectively, towards freelancers from developing countries. Interestingly, these negative acts occur in skilled, professional digital workplaces though they can be, and usually are, tracked and sanctioned.

Recommendations towards addressing these issues resonate with the contemporary call for decent work and dignified workplaces worldwide. Crowdsourced paid work needs to be de-commodified and its human character needs to be highlighted and underpinned by legal contours. Linking the discourse to the regulation of non-standard employment, incorporating transparency in platform functioning and promoting greater involvement of self-organization and unions to ensure worker voice alongside platform self-monitoring point to the way ahead.

Taking action on these steps through an internationally coordinated approach seems appropriate given the global reach of this emergent phenomenon.

Premilla D’Cruz is professor of organizational behaviour at IIM Ahmedabad. She researches workplace bullying, emotions in organizations, self and identity at work, and ICTDs and organizations, and is currently President of the International Association on Workplace Bullying and Harassment.