New forms of work and platform economy in the Southern Mediterranean: navigating opportunities and challenges

The three-day event, organised by the European Training Foundation (ETF) and the Union for the Mediterranean, on youth employment in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean (SEMED) has begun in Turin. The first day of meetings on Tuesday 12 December focused on so-called new forms of work, with a particular emphasis on the platform economy sector.

The ETF study on new forms of work in SEMED countries highlights the main trends in the region and provides some figures on platform workers in different countries (including the shocking 380% increase in online working platforms since 2017), but it also highlights an important aspect that is clear to all speakers and participants: the lack of data and statistics, coupled with the reluctance of the main companies in the sector to provide essential information for policy studies.

“The platform economy is developing around the world, but data is really scarce. At the ETF, we have conducted research on this sector not only in the Southern Mediterranean, but also in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe. We are advocating for more in-depth research and data production, as the main problem for the latter is that platforms like Uber don't disclose their data," said Francesca Rosso, ETF Human Capital Development Expert and Skills Demand Analysis Coordinator.

Following a lively exchange of perspectives among the participants from non-governmental organisations and institutions from SEMED countries, several fishbowl discussions were held to identify opportunities and threats for the platform economy sector in the regions. As one of the guests noted: "The ecosystem is changing and it is our duty to witness this movement."

In the dynamic landscape of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean's platform economy, one discussion revealed a tapestry of opportunities. From enhancing digital skills and unleashing creativity to fostering social entrepreneurship in rural areas, the region is poised for transformative change. Participants emphasised a paradigm shift in the region: "Valuing skills over diplomas," as one participant brilliantly summed up.

This evolution is driving accelerated upskilling and reskilling initiatives, creating not only new skills but also new job opportunities. Moreover, according to some participants, the platform economy is not just a job market but a breeding ground for entrepreneurship, with individuals leaving platforms to start their own businesses. The flexible nature of these jobs not only expands the labour market, but also intersects with the green transition, promoting sustainability by reducing energy costs for offices and buildings. Importantly, the sector seeks to engage low-skilled women (although this consideration doesn't overlap with the results of the ETF study), offering them a gateway to higher wages compared to traditional labour markets.

However, several challenges and threats are just around the corner, and the workshop participants were not blinded by transformative optimism. Amongst the heterogeneous and original perspectives of the different groups and experts in the discussions, the main issues raised were the risks of instruments perceived as neutral reproducing and reinforcing discrimination based on gender, origin and age. Especially the integration of AI into human resources management raises concerns about dehumanisation and calls for the humanisation and regulation of algorithms. 

Regulatory gaps create a breeding ground for issues such as limited opportunities in certain regions and security threats. Societal anxieties about cultural mistrust, payment insecurity and the potential for discrimination might exacerbate social inequalities and exclusion, especially for women (which weigh only 20% of online work on and off platforms) and minorities. The platform model, while offering flexibility, masks systemic problems in the labour market, from harassment to discrimination.

The individualisation of competition fosters loneliness and social detachment, reshaping the social structure. Issues of social and psychological well-being, income sustainability and data security emerge as critical fronts. The platform economy also faces the challenge of reaching all minorities, especially in inaccessible rural areas where a lack of awareness is widespread.

As the landscape evolves, challenges include also the disappearance of traditional jobs, tensions between local and international platforms, and cultural scepticism in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean about freelancing. Communication gaps with the public exacerbate concerns about work-life balance and the overall sustainability of this transformative economic model. The concluding conversations between participants were conscious of the fact that we are witnessing a crucial period of transition, where no answer is simple and immovable.

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