Earnings: Is there a fair return for time and assets applied? Many studies tried to estimate earnings, or at least ask individuals how they felt about the earnings they received. Some assessments were positive, compared to alternatives in other sectors, compared to non-platformed versions of the same work, or compared to the abstraction of ‘enough’. But negative assessments of earnings were somewhat more frequent, often appearing in the same studies that shared positive assessments. Many reported earnings that were low or unstable. Some were frustrated by high competition, uncompensated time, dropped or missing earnings, and the share of the fee taken by the platform.
There were more discussions of earnings amongst the studies than of any other element. Many assessments of earnings were positive, and many of those were comparative.
One approach was to compare earnings to something else. Microworkers (Anwar and Graham 2019; Berg 2016; Soriano and Panaligan 2019) and freelancers (Soriano and Panaligan 2019; Crosby and Cahaya 2017; Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017) suggested work was better than alternatives they could find locally. Zollmann and Wanjala (2020) note that in Kenya, boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers earn more than might be expected, on par with an office worker. Freelancing pays better than average GDP per capita in the Philippines and India (Beerepoot and Lambregts 2015), better than average entry-level graduate jobs in local African labor markets (Malik et al. 2020), or at least well above minimum wages (Muhindi 2019). Driving and logistics pay better than call center work in Cambodia (Jack, Chen, and Jackson 2017).
Another approach was to compare earnings to what people could earn (or did earn) in the same profession, but outside the platform system. For ride hailing in Bangladesh (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018) and in Indonesia, some were happy with the higher wages than they were earning before joining a platform (Budiman 2020; Nastiti 2017; Wisana et al. 2017). In Uganda and Nigeria, drivers reported earning 25% more than they did in the informal sector, and 50% more once they purchased their own car (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020). In the markets for local services in Kenya and South Africa, there were similar dynamics (Hunt et al. 2019), and the chance to earn more money in the same profession was the reason for switching to such work among participants in one study in India (Aneja and Sridhar 2019).
A third approach was to report that earnings were sufficient in an absolute sense—“economically important” (Lehdonvirta 2016), or enough for everyday expenses, food, or travel (Martin et al. 2016; Onkokame, Schoentgen, and Gillwald 2018). One study of the labor, logistics, and ridesharing sectors in Kenya noted that participants earned enough to pay for daycare, food, rent, clothes, and other essentials (Kibe 2020) or for saving to invest in other things (Malik, Nicholson, and Heeks 2018).
Beyond comparisons, other positive sub-themes in earnings focused on how money could be made (rather than how much). Beauty workers in India, part of the trades and services sector, stressed that they preferred the ways in which they were able to earn on platforms commensurate to their efforts, per job, instead of receiving a fixed wage regardless of the number of clients they might serve in a salon setting ((Raval and Pal 2019) echoed in (Surie 2020)). Drivers in Colombia were happy with the work as a part-time augmentation, allowing them to earn extra money on the side (Reilly and Lozano-Paredes 2019). Some microworkers liked how earnings were predictable (D’Cruz and Noronha 2016). Some in services and ride hailing liked how platforms paid earnings more frequently (Surie and Koduganti 2016). And finally, in a critical intersection with themes of gender and agency, some reported that simply earning money via online freelancing and microwork creates independence from husbands and families (Aneja and Sridhar 2019).
However, negative assessments of earnings were somewhat more frequent, often appearing in the same studies that shared positive assessments.
One approach was to note, in passing or in detail, that earnings were simply low. This impression surfaced among local service workers in China (B. Chen et al. 2020), India (Aneja and Sridhar 2019), Kenya and South Africa (Hunt et al. 2019); among microworkers (Martin et al. 2016; Anwar and Graham 2019; Rani and Furrer 2019), and among freelancers in the Philippines (Tintiangko and Soriano 2020). In microwork, these wages were low enough that microworkers rely on family for shelter and support (Berg 2016). One study suggested that microwork earnings in Nepal were lower than those of house servants (Lehdonvirta 2018). Some platform workers and platform entrepreneurs note that they were not paid commensurate to their skills (Martin et al. 2016; Berg et al. 2018).
Comparisons to off-platform earnings were not always as rosy as those described above. Studies in China of delivery and ride hailing suggest lower average earnings than those off-platform in similar roles (J. Y. Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020), and in Indonesia, drivers earned less than minimum wage once expenses were accounted for (Nastiti 2017).
In some cases, platform workers and entrepreneurs are acutely aware of a downward pressure on earnings due to increased competition from other workers (S. Gupta 2020). This is particularly the case in international markets for microwork (Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017) and freelancing (Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017; Malik et al. 2020; Wood and Lehdonvirta 2019; Wood et al. 2019a), where some are uncomfortable asking for more, always aware of what someone in a lower-income region might charge (Anwar and Graham 2020).
Uncompensated time and investments are frustrating in several ways. First, many expressed stress or frustration resulting from inauthentic clients or technical glitches; this was apparent in local labor (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020; S. Gupta 2020), microwork (N. Gupta et al. 2014; Panteli, Rapti, and Scholarios 2020), freelancing (Melia 2020), and ride hailing (Zade and O’Neill 2016).
Even when things do not go wrong, they are not necessarily right. Some stressed how searching for work (or traveling to work) is uncompensated, with expenses falling on the worker/vendor in microwork (Gray and Suri 2019; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016; Wood et al. 2019b), freelancing (Muhindi 2019; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016), ride hailing (Geitung 2017) and services (Hunt et al. 2019; Aneja and Sridhar 2019; Garcia et al. 2020; Krishna 2020; Kiarie, Singh, and Obiko 2020). So is extra time spent to deliver great service and build loyalty (Raval and Pal 2019), and the slow build to get established and get first paying clients (Anwar and Graham 2019; Genesis Analytics 2019). Obvious but worth stating—car maintenance and fuel are inputs paid by drivers (Mare, Chiumbu, and Mpofu 2020), as are traffic fines (J. Y. Chen 2018).
In the mirror image of the reliability element described above, some reported that earnings were unstable, varying per month for online MSEs (B. Chen et al. 2020) and local labor (Hunt et al. 2019).
Some were aware of the size of the platform cut: 15% for drivers (Mare, Chiumbu, and Mpofu 2020) and creating conditions like a “sweatshop” for freelancers (Wood and Lehdonvirta 2019).
In all, there is a mix of positive and negative sentiments expressed about earnings, depending on what they are compared to, on expectations, and on industry sector and country. That said, it is worth noting how infrequently these assertions were accompanied by quantification, as many of these studies were qualitative. When they are quantified, it is possible to discern patterns and perhaps an intersectional downward pressure on earnings by region and gender. For example, one ILO study estimated microwork wages at $4.43 an hour, $3.21 when unpaid time searching was included, and $1.33 an hour for the same work among microworkers in Africa (Berg et al. 2018). Another analysis of freelancing finds a pay gap for women (Dubey et al. 2017). For further comparative analyses see Wood et al (2019a) and Muhindi (2019).
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