Our blog this week discusses a new research report on experiences of unfairness and fairness in platform work in Finland.
This report is the final report of the REIMA (Models of fairness in platform work) research project of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. The purpose of the project was to investigate the central elements that cause experiences of fairness with platform workers.
This small project is a part of a large development project called Work2030. It aims to:
- foster work culture based on cooperation and trust;
- make Finland a leading developer of work-life innovations in the digital age; and
- make Finland the world leader in well-being at work by 2030.
In addition to the report we discuss here, the project also published a list of platform companies that mediate work in Finland. You can find the list here.
About the REIMA research project
As the report states, platforms can benefit particularly those at the margins of the labor force in that they offer flexibility. They can, however, also bring challenges to workers utilizing them. Those challenges relate to the irregularity of work and income, social security, working conditions, and the inability to influence those working conditions through collective bargaining. These are related to their status as self-employed people rather than as employees (please refer to our earlier blog “Employee or not“).
To them, fairness means accountability and responsibility, transparency, and the equal distribution of benefits. It includes compensation for work done, and development and learning opportunities at work. It also includes such working conditions that promote the health and well-being of workers and their career prospects.
Seppänen, Känsälä, Immonen, and Alasoini studied this issue by looking at previous international research, conducting interviews, and examining societal discussion on the issue. They have focused specifically on two different groups of platform workers: food delivery workers and freelancers providing professional services online.
In this blog post, I will only talk about their findings regarding how workers themselves have experienced unfairness and fairness in platform work in Finland.
The material for this part of the research project consists of 25 structured interviews. Of these, 14 were freelancers and 11 were food delivery workers.
As the researchers explain, both the work and the platforms these two different groups of workers use are very different. Their purpose was, however, to find out if there were similar experiences of unfairness and fairness. In addition, they wanted to discover what specific aspects in platform work generate these experiences. Their hypothesis was that should these aspects be shared between these groups, perhaps these aspects generate similar experiences also in workers on other platforms.
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The experiences of unfairness and fairness in platform work in Finland
All in all, interviewed freelancers described 111 episodes where they felt they had benefited from platform work and 87 experiences where they hadn’t.
Food delivery workers, in turn, described 146 episodes of benefit and 191 episodes where they hadn’t benefited from platform work.
Sometimes but not always these benefits and drawbacks had to do with workers experiencing fairness or unfairness. Deeming something as fair or unfair, after all, is often subjective and context depended. Hence in the following, the subjective feelings of fairness and unfairness are intertwined with benefits and drawbacks.
The majority of the experiences had to do with the platforms themselves. This includes the platform’s technology, support services, rules, and ratings. We’ll start with those.
In general, the interviewed platform workers considered support services to be fair.
Some mentioned problems with communication and transparency but the ability to track one’s performance and fees generated a sense of fairness.
Freelancers often considered free skills tests, arbitration services, and payment systems to be beneficial.
One factor that specifically received mentions as being unfair was the rate of commission the platforms took.
The rating systems platforms use generated particularly many recorded episodes in the interviews.
While the interviewed freelancers generally felt positive about the rating system the opacity of the rating often felt unfair.
Ratings allow those commissioning the work to evaluate the skills of the freelancers. A large number of positive ratings increase the possibility to get more work and increase fees. As the ratings are generated by the platform, customers consider them more reliable than testimonials by the freelancers themselves. However, all the intricacies of the rating algorithms are not open to freelancers. Hence drops in rating can come as a surprise and thus feel unfair.
Food delivery workers also talked about similar experiences with rating algorithms.
Platforms often treat their rating algorithms as business secrets. So they keep their details hidden from workers. This causes insecurity in workers. They also do not necessarily know how precisely to improve their performance to increase their ratings.
Freedom as fairness in platform work in Finland
The researchers report that interviewees mention freedom as perhaps the best benefit of platform work.
Freedom contributes to fairness in two ways. It’s a benefit in itself but it also helps counteract possible drawbacks of platform work.
Freedom had several aspects. In principle, for example, platform work allows the worker to choose how much and when they wanted to work. Obviously, if platform work is their sole source of income this freedom is constricted by, for example, the fees they are getting and the necessity to attend to their ratings.
For some, freedom also means freedom from some aspects associated with employment relationships. The researchers highlight that in order for us to deem something fair or unfair, we always need to have a reference to which compare our experiences. Depending also what that reference is, we can judge our experiences differently. In this particular example, the reference point of the food delivery worker was their experiences in a previous employment relationship. In relation to that, they deemed platform work as free and convenient.
However, particularly food delivery workers mentioned that the rules platforms set on them restrict that freedom.
Improving fairness in platform work in Finland
The researches suggest several ways in which the sense of fairness in platform work in Finland could be increased.
On the one hand, they present ways in which platform workers can improve things. In their opinion, there are 3 ways in which they can do this.
First, platform workers can inform platforms of the problems they have in their work. Secondly, they can study how platforms work and use that knowledge to their advantage. Thirdly, they can try to influence the practices of the platform and the platform itself. This, they suggest, could all be done collectively.
On the other hand, they also suggest ways in which platforms can improve the sense of fairness of their workers.
Platforms should, for example, inform workers about their practices and terns as clearly and as transparently as possible. Platforms should also tell workers why they do things the way they do. They should inform the workers of their rights and responsibilities. Additionally, they should actively seek to find out what their workers think of the platform, the work they do, and how the workers think it could be improved.
One of the most important ways to increase the sense of fairness is to try to keep the amount of work offered through the platform and the number of workers doing the work in some sort of balance. Competition between the workers, while not always a drawback, can contribute to a heightened sense of unfairness. Especially if it leads to an overall decrease in fees or to a sense of the unequal distribution of work.
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