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Speeding up change in a global, online world of work

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people into remote working in the past year. European Training Foundation research suggests that this could have catalysed a jump of five years in an already rapidly changing world of work, as well as new global online opportunities, ETF labour market expert Iwona Ganko told a webinar on the #FutureOfWork.

By exploring opportunities driven by remote work and the proliferation of online work platforms – and by acting now – “we could make a jump of 25 years”.

The ETF has dedicated February to the future of work and skills. This week’s webinar, titled “Learning Connects: New forms of work”, was co-hosted by ETF and the American University of Armenia. Alongside Iwona, the speakers were Associate Professor Vardan Baghdasaryan of the American University of Armenia, and Ukrainian independent expert Oleksandra Betliy.

ETF research started exploring the future of work in 2017, Iwona said: “We realised how much the world of work was being reshaped by global trends and how jobs are changing. They are divided into tasks, they are more flexible, and new forms of work are appearing. New, because many jobs today are not stable.”

Platform work

Platform work describes the use of online platforms to match service providers with service users, Vardan told the webinar. The matching can be algorithmic – for instance, Uber uses an algorithm to select the closest car. Or it can be manual – for example, a person uses profiles on a platform to choose a plumber.

In both cases, the platform that facilitates matching is online, either an application or a website. It might seem that things are the same – that just the technology has changed – but platforms have kicked up many new challenges, for instance regulatory problems.

Vardan’s research also distinguishes between two types of platform provision. One enables onsite service delivery, for example a service provider must meet with a client. The other is online delivery, such as artwork or IT, usually by a freelancer.

Some 5% of the (non-farm) working age population in Armenia have experience with platform work, “quite high” for an emerging form of work, said Vardan. Platform work often complements income from a main job, it is not well regulated – “tax authorities are a bit lost about what to do” – and people are happy with the flexibility it provides.

Oleksandra said that around half a million Ukrainians participate in online platforms – national, global and Russian. There are more than 40 remote platforms available. The IT sector offers good opportunities online, and Ukraine has become an IT powerhouse. Platform work is popular, developing fast and providing new work and revenues .

The ETF research

ETF research kicked off in autumn last year in six Eastern partnership countries – Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Belarus. It found a variety of people working on platforms from different age groups, but young people were the most engaged both in web-based freelancing and on-location delivery of services.

A policy thought was to spread online and platform opportunities to, for example, women at home with young families, people with disabilities and people in remote areas. A precondition for engaging in platform work is having digital access, and that too is a priority for development.

There are, Iwona stressed, “huge opportunities, both at the global level and at the local level”. The pandemic is driving a leap in remote working and in new forms of work, and by exploring and acting on those possibilities “we could make a jump of 25 years”.

Oleksandra however underscored the differences between online platform and remote work. Currently with remote work, employment status remains the same – the person is just working from home. On the other hand, “online platforms are not about regular employment.”

Vardan said platforms were providing great flexibility. There are prospects for new forms of work to alleviate high levels of youth unemployment, to provide additional income and improve the quality of services. Platform work could thus be crucial for economies like Armenia, which has major underemployment and where one job often does not provide sufficient income.

Finally, new forms of work are providing possibilities to improve the quality of services, user-friendliness and skills.

What about the challenges?

Oleksandra spoke about ‘flexicurity’ – a combination of labour market flexibility and worker security. For people working online, there is flexibility but lack of security and stability. Pay might be good, but the work depends on clients who are not always fair, or even there.

There are multiple and complex ways in which online freelancers can be exploited or can exploit – for instance, avoiding taxes. Freelancers may face obstacles and poor working conditions. People may work online simply because there are not traditional jobs available.

Oleksandra stressed the complexity of tax and business regulations, employment conditions and social security. Efforts to regulate activities will only work if people trust the government, and if there is strong communication. An attempt by Ukraine met with huge protests, mostly because of lack of trust. Regulating new forms of work will be especially difficult at the international level.

As important as trust is transparency, said Iwona. Currently there is not much information on how platforms work, or how people are engaging. The European Commission is trying to work with platforms to ascertain what is happening and be able to act at the policy level.

Wrap-up

Daria asked the panellists to briefly describe how platform work is shaping new forms of work. Vardan’s words were flexible, super competitive and super uncertain. “I'm trying to emphasise the opportunities, but not forget about the challenges.” Iwona underscored a future of flexibility, “but it needs to benefit everybody”. Oleksandra stressed connectivity and new forms of work following a new third of globalisation – of labour markets.

Daria concluded: “Even if we're talking about a global phenomenon, it’s differently shaped in different contexts. That’s why this conversation was meaningful.”

Re-watch the episode here: 

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