In the past two months, we have all been consumed by the war in Ukraine, with terrible images of buildings on fire, people fleeing the country and utter destruction filling our screens, newspapers and minds. In this tragic situation, the insecurity and precarity of platform work has become an even clearer reality.
In the past few years, the platform economy has found in Ukraine a particularly thriving environment to expand. Thanks to a workforce that is very well-educated, tech-savvy and fluent in English, Ukraine has been a particularly attractive country for companies looking for online freelancers to provide a range of services, including graphic design, software engineering, copyediting and IT services. Most notably, Ukrainian workers offered these services at much lower prices compared to their Western counterparts, given the lower cost of living in the country, and lower (expected) wages. According to the ILO, already in 2018, around 3% of the Ukraine’s workforce was engaged in cloudwork, with Ukraine being the 7th largest supplier of cloudworkers in the world (Aleksynka and Kharchenko, 2018). Moreover, many ride-hailing and delivery platforms have also set foot in the country, growing rapidly until recently.
But the war has changed all that. Platform workers not only have had to fear for their lives and those of their loved ones, but they also had to worry on how to make ends meet, as finding work on platforms, and sustaining their online profiles became ever more difficult. Technically speaking, online platform work entails that workers can work anytime from anywhere. But amidst terrible destruction, and for some, long journeys away from home, less stable internet connection, not being able to charge one’s devices or the challenge of finding a safe and quiet place to do one’s work, make it difficult for many workers to meet the deadlines set by clients. As a result, finding work and keeping a competitive profile is ever more difficult.
As platform workers mostly work on a self-employed basis, lower ratings and a reduction in work opportunities directly translates into less income. At the same time, platforms do not offer their (formally) freelance workers the protections generally entitled to employees, leaving these workers out in the cold. In line with their narrative of being simple ‘intermediaries’, platforms are not taking any direct obligation towards their workers, failing to share the risk of fewer earning opportunities.
This was also the case for many workers in the food delivery sector: After the start of the war, almost all platforms stopped their operations in Ukraine abruptly, many of them owing workers wages for the last week of work. Only the food delivery platforms Glovo and Bolt Food resumed operations after the initial shutdown, to deliver essential services to the population of Ukraine’s war-struck cities. After the pandemic, it is once again platform delivery workers who fulfil essential functions in a society in crisis.
Despite many messages of support for Ukraine, there has been little actual financial support to platform workers from the digital labour platforms. Many of these companies have refused to change their fee structure, meaning workers have had to pay the same share to the platform but for a lower income (Marshall, 2022). Or on online platforms where workers need to directly bid for jobs, they still need to do so out of pocket. Only recently, some platforms, like Fiverr, a cloudwork company, have been returning all commissions charged to workers since the beginning of the war, and they have restricted the ability of clients to give low ratings for delayed work (Gilead, 2022). Glovo, a food delivery platform, is running operations in Kyiv under a non-profit model, where all revenues from consumer fees are donated to humanitarian organisations. In addition, Glovo has introduced additional bonuses for delivery workers allowing couriers to earn up to triple of their pre-war rates (Labor Initiatives, 2022).
In addition, a number of platforms have now introduced programmes of donations to support workers in Ukraine. For instance, Upwork, a cloudwork platform, allows clients to send funds to freelancers in Ukraine without requiring any work (Breese, 2022). However, in those cases, the financial support to workers is left to the goodwill and charity of clients and customers, rather than being a direct responsibility of the platform.
Platforms have also fallen short of protecting workers’ physical safety. Some platforms have introduced measure to protect their small number of employees in Ukraine. But these measures do not affect at all the much larger number of self-employed workers who work for and through these platforms. The main measure introduced by these platforms has simply been to cease operations in the most dangerous areas, leaving them to their demise – as workers are cut off from opportunities for work both online and offline. Some of the few platforms which have partly resumed operations, such as Glovo, have, according to their own account, introduced safety protocols and accident insurance for their couriers to minimise risks (Glovo 2022). Nevertheless, delivery workers still currently fear for their lives on the road in the face of bombings and military strikes.
In conclusion, the war in Ukraine has spotlighted the extreme precarity and insecurity platform workers face. Although a number of platforms have taken some proactive measures to support and protect workers, these are far from enough. Most platforms have failed to take direct responsibility for the fate of their workers and have avoided shouldering even part of the risks. At the same time, especially delivery workers are fulfilling essential tasks to fulfil the urban populations’ basic needs for food and medicine during the war. In an interview with the Kyiv-based Labor Initiatives (2022), delivery worker organiser ‘Comrade Gromov’ states that many delivery workers support Ukraine’s fight for democracy as an act of resisting oppression and working towards a better future: only under democracy they will have the chance to continue their fight for labour rights.
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