Who are the Shapers of the Platform Economy from Serbia? Intersectional Study of Platform Workers and Policy Agenda Perspective

Authors: Branka Andjelkovic, Tanja Jakobi, dr Maja Kovac, Jelena Sapic, Milica Skocajic

Public Policy Research Center, Belgrade, Serbia

This paper discusses the socio-economic status of digital workers (e.g. crowdworkers) from Serbia and the relevant national policy agenda focusing on this particular new form of work and workforce. The thesis put forward by the paper is that the concept of decent work remains a useful analytical and advocating tool to assure fair working conditions as well as enjoyment of labour and other rights in the realm of digital work.

The debate in the existing literatures is mainly focused on discrepancies between digital work and the notion of decent work suggesting that digital work is far beyond to harmonizing with decent work agenda. In this vein, it has been identified that digital work environment features online practices of discrimination against gender and/or nationality/ethnicity, underpaid jobs, and global race-to-the-bottom as common strategy in bidding for tasks (Scholz, 2013; ILO, 2016; De Stefano, 2016; Graham et al., 2017). On the other hand, as discussions suggest, due to geographically disperse workforce, digital workers’ power for organizing and collective bargaining has been hampered so far (Graham et al., 2017).

At present Serbia, together with Romania and Ukraine, represents the largest pool of digital labour among European countries. A report by Kuek et al. (2015) ranked Serbia as the world’s second online outsourcing country when it comes to the number of digital workers relative to the country’s population. In particular, this source indicates that it contributes with 1.1 percent of workers per country population and with 2.6 percent of workers per country’s total labour force to outsourcing workforce compared globally (approximately 80.000 workers from Serbia who work on global online platforms and live locally).

However, there is a wide gap in the existing literature with regard to the socio-economic status and relevant experiences of digital workers from Serbia that this paper intends to address. The paper draws on in-depth fieldwork in Serbia to critically examine the ongoing trends in the platform economy focusing on digital labour platforms such as UpWork, Freelancer, BIBO Global Opportunity, Microworkers, etc. Situating the emergence of such new forms of work within the insecurity and uncertainty of the offline world caused by the most recent austerity measures and rapid technological changes, the paper offers an analysis of digital workers’ socio-economic status in Serbia, primarily segregated by gender, age, and skills. It also delves into the motivation of workers to engage in this form of the digital work, known as crowdwork (for the detailed explanation of the term, see: De Stefano, 2016). The paper further argues that efforts of policy makers in Serbia to address these new realities have been almost non-existent. By doing so, it foregrounds the critical role of decent work principles, while illuminating the digital workers’ profiles, their needs and concerns.

From the methodological perspective, the paper applies mixed method approach as it provides an opportunity to deal with established phenomenon pursuing all-encompassing apprehension. Within the scope of quantitative approach scrapping of open source data on global digital labour platforms including online survey among digital workers from Serbia are being performed. On the other side, qualitative methods include semi-structured individual interviews with the so-called shapers (digital workers, policy makers, scholars, international gatekeepers); and content analysis of digital workers' forums and official legal documents are being deployed.

The initial research findings suggest that on the three most prominent global digital labour platforms (Freelancer, People per Hour, Guru) men are more present than women, especially in sectors that allow better earnings such as creative and multimedia, and software development and technology. Initial findings also indicate that women engage in sectors traditionally regarded as female-dominated such as teaching, writing and translation, which as a consequence opens the question of potential gains from new forms of work. Moreover, observations collected through forums reveal necessity of digital workers to deepen their knowledge on disposable legal means to register and benefit from the employment status. The forums observations imply that forums could serve as a starting point to develop and enhance social dialogue, collective bargaining, and organizing among workers aimed at bettering their position and securing access to labour and other rights in the digital realm. The decent work notion entails economic, social, and psychological aspects aimed at empowering workers and their capacities to meaningfully participate in the life. Taking in consideration these aspects, one can argue that ongoing trends in the platform economy for the digital workers from Serbia are likely to affect their well-being twofold. While they get a chance to capitalize on skill arbitrage, they get exposed to eroding job and social security and consequently bear high costs of transfer of risks and responsibilities on workers themselves. The paper provides an original contribution to both academic and policy arenas. It contributes to the growing literature on the digital labour by providing the first-ever case study on Serbia. By examining various trajectories, this paper investigates the potential cumulative aspect of digital work on the society as a whole in Serbia. It conveys policy recommendations based in the decent work legacies that may stem the tide of vulnerable status of digital workers from Serbia in the long run.

Key words: digital work, digital labour platforms, Serbia, platform economy, decent work

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