The Global Gig Workers is a deep dive into the lives of millions of workers around the world dealing with the common concerns brought about by the emergent platform economy. It is the result of a months-long investigation and data collection effort—one that surveyed nearly 5000 workers and interviewed dozens more. It includes a longform story on efforts to collectivize, unionize, and generally connect global gig workers, data-driven investigations into gender-based pay disparity and more issues shared by workers across the world, and day-in-the-life profiles of workers in Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and South Africa.
This package has become a reference point for our continuing work on the platform economy. We have used our findings to pursue further reporting, highlighting unethical and unsustainable working practices in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It has been cited in other media outlets (Wired, The Verge, The Guardian, Quartz, Techcabal, Tech in Asia, and more) and by academic researchers and labor activists. One of the Indian workers featured in the story, encouraged by the response to its publication, began legal proceedings against the platform company he worked for.
We needed our data to capture a multidimensional picture of the economic, personal and emotional situation of platform workers, so that we could challenge the core defenses of the platform model: that it is an evolution of labor, that it offers flexibility, fairness, that algorithms are neutral brokers of work.
We needed an approach that joined the individual local stories that we had collected in our previous reporting into a unified global narrative, something that demonstrated the universality of the issues that workers faced without losing the texture and uniqueness of their experiences. Our solution was to perform a broad survey of gig workers in 15 countries, with questions tailored to capture hard data on their demographics, economic situation, and working conditions, as well as more subjective analysis of their emotional states.
Working with a mobile phone-based survey company, we pre-filtered survey subjects in 15 countries to build a solid base of around 5,000 workers who responded to our questionnaire. We collated and cleaned the responses into a dashboard that allowed us to trend-spot and identify gaps and anomalies. Through extensive interviews with platform workers, labour rights experts and economists, and by collecting local data on average earnings, working hours and similar factors, we established a basic weighting system that allowed us to feed our data through into an ‘index’ that meant we — and readers — could compare workers’ situations between job function, geography and gender.
This approach gave us a substantial statistical backing for what our on-the-ground reporting was telling us about how platform work was being experienced worldwide; it directed our future reporting on the subject, and continues to be used by our reporters to shape coverage of platform work.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The biggest challenge we had with this project was finding ways to bridge the gaps in scale between the personal stories we needed to tell to root the narrative in character and emotion, and the global macro picture we needed to present. We also needed to be able to draw broad, international conclusions while preserving the texture and uniqueness of the individual countries we covered in the project.
Overcoming this meant designing a survey that drew extensively from our existing reporting on platform work, which gave equal space to emotional and environmental factors as it did to more quantitative indicators of job quality. We were also careful to select the countries covered by our survey, making sure we had a broad spread of geographies, income levels and political and social contexts, while also ensuring that each had a large enough sample size, strong baseline data and sufficient existing information for us to be able to understand anomalies and deviations.
The data we gathered helped us to do more than simply measure the state of platform work, but to deepen our future rounds of reporting, and to identify questions that often aren’t considered in narrower reporting on the issue: How do algorithmic management systems encode gender prejudices, and what happens when those are transplanted into paternalistic societies? What corners get cut when you run a libertarian, regulation-averse business model in a country like Ukraine, with limited state capacity and widespread corruption? Who, ultimately, foots the bill when companies don’t pay a living wage?
What can others learn from this project?
The core learning from this project was that journalists increasingly have the tools to perform massive-scale reporting to provide statistical backing for their on-the-ground work. Using a hybrid model that blends data collection with reporting, we were able to project human-scale narratives onto a global scale. This kind of approach — which combines an academic research model with journalistic sensibilities — will have many applications in our work as we try to find ways to verify and challenge our reporting. Most importantly, it shows us the importance of collaboration between “traditional” journalists and data specialists, with each bringing their unique insights and experiences to create a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts.