The number of people relying on ‘platform work’ continues to grow and has been intensified by the pandemic. According to the TUC, people in England and Wales who said that they performed work they had found via an online platform at least once a week grew from 5.8 per cent of the working population in 2016 to 11.8 per cent in 2019 rising to 14.7 per cent in 2021 (equivalent to approximately 4.4 million people). Half of those relied on it for half of their income.
The TUC data shows that between 2016 and 2019, the 19–24-year age group made up a third of platform workers, but this had tailed off during the pandemic possibly reflecting the fact that students were less available during lockdowns.
But some of the largest increases have been in what is referred to as ‘click-work’. According to the TUC, the proportion of workers doing this at least weekly grew from 4.9 per cent in 2016 to 9.6 per cent in 2019 and to 11.9 per cent in 2021. Carried out remotely, click work can cover a variety of tasks. Some of these are well paid and technologically sophisticated,
but as reviewed elsewhere, https://education-economy-society.com/2021/11/10/review-the-automation-debate/ most of the work, (click workers hunt for ‘gigs’ via on-line platforms linked to tech giants, for example Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) is low-paid, low skilled and tedious. Labelling data and annotating images, in many cases contracted only for the length of a given task, lacking any sense of participating in a collective labour process and knowing little about the exact nature of the product they are contributing to.
While those in other parts of the world work long hours for less than $2 a day and rely heavily on this for their main income, further studies by the TUC https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/seven-ways-platform-workers-are-fighting-back and by Autonomy https://autonomy.work/portfolio/riseandgrind/ show that in the UK, this work is used to supplement other sources of income, including full-time jobs. In otherwords, click-work is associated with ‘underemployment’.
While workers of all ages engage in click-work, most are more likely to be younger (32% of click workers were in the 25-34 age, while 13% were 18–24-year-olds). Click-workers also tend to be well educated (another type of under employment) with over 60% holding a tertiary level qualification (degree) and over 20% a postgraduate degree.
Holding a tertiary level qualification does not lead to workers receiving higher wages . According to Autonomy, of those with a degree, or post-grad education, 40% earn less than £2 per hour, 60% less than £4 – with just 5% earning £10. Many see this sort of work as a temporary measure, lasting a few months, consequently there’s a high turnover. The sense that this isn’t seen as ‘real’ work is also a prime reason workers are less likely to complain about low pay.
The available of platform work is invariably linked to wider economic shocks. While the pandemic increased demand for delivery and transportation services, the sharp jump in inflation, the predicted recession because of disruption of (post Brexit) supply chains, the war in Ukraine and the flatlining of the Chinese economy are having the reverse effects as consumers cut back on non-essential expenditure.
But platform and click work are here to stay and unfortunately will play an increasing part in the working lives of future generations. As young people become a key part of this ‘reserve army of labour’ new labour market conditions require new responses.