The perils of the platform economy and freelancing for big sites
Upwork, Fiverr, Amazon, YouTube, …. It’s likely that, as a freelancer, at some point you will consider these kinds of big sites to connect with clients and find platforms for your work. But while these online platforms can help generate gigs and audiences, they are also microcosms of the struggles facing many precarious workers.
While the people creating the content for these platforms are freelancers and technically self-employed, reliance on big companies for work means that freelancers lack control over many factors that affect their business. “You’re at the whim of these big companies that don’t even notice the changes that are really impacting you on a day to day basis,” says Michelle Keep, a romance author who creates content for Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, as well as Chapters’ Kobo and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. “There’s probably not even a blip in terms of how much they are making, but they can decimate your earnings”.
Keep describes how changes to the way Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, a program similar to Netflix for books, have affected participating authors. While the program originally paid authors a fee every time someone read a minimum of 10% of a book, in 2015 Amazon shifted to paying a fee per page read—resulting in an overall lower fee paid to the author for many books. “Rather than cutting the fee per book, they changed the model so it is harder to see that you are being paid less”, says Keep. Coupled with the fact that there is no transparency in the system—authors are “totally at their discretion in terms of how many people are reading our books and how long they are reading our books”, according to Keep—and the fact that the fee paid per page read fluctuates, authors are often in the dark about important factors affecting business decisions.
Likewise, there was generalized uproar amongst freelance users of Upwork, a popular platform connecting clients to freelance writers, designers and developers, when Upwork changed its fee structure in 2016. Whereas previously freelancers were charged a flat 10% rate on projects obtained through the site, Upwork’s new model charges 20% on the first $500 billed with each client, 10% on billings between $500.01 and $10 000 and 5% on billings over $10 000. While Upwork claimed this change was to attract high value freelancers, the reality is that the significant proportion of freelancers working smaller jobs have seen the fees they pay to the site double.
The impact of the changes at Upwork depends largely on the business model of the individual freelancers using the site. But the shift does highlight one of the biggest challenges facing freelancers dependent on large sites for their income: Changes that can significantly impact income or business strategy are largely out of their control.
“Back when Amazon was a little baby company, they treated the people who created content as partners, because we were doing ground level marketing”, says Keep. “Then they get so big that they stop looking at you as part of their success, and start looking at their success as in spite of you”.
As the ability to control their own working lives is one of the most cited reasons for choosing freelance work, this phenomenon is troubling. One solution, says Keep, is to fight for collective bargaining among content creators to fight for more control over their work. “Not necessarily with respect to wages, but we need collective bargaining for transparency, to have a say in changes that are going to impact us and for an appeals process”, says Keep.
In industries where most creators will never meet each other face to face, this kind of collective bargaining can seem like a long shot. The isolation of freelance platform users is compounded by the fact that the sites are often organized to encourage competition as opposed to solidarity amongst users. “Sites like Fiverr make your work an individual experience where you are competing against your colleagues for the same task. You’re bidding against each other”, says Craig Berggold, a labour activist and PhD candidate studying the culture of the gig economy. “This competition creates fear, insecurity and the constant need to update yourself-- social pressures that relate to the precarious nature of our work”.
Nevertheless, the kind of organizing that could lead to collective bargaining is difficult, but not impossible. “There are online chat boards for those discussions to take place”, says Berggold. “Organizing of the future is going to have to consider alternative methods to the traditional face to face meeting. There is also discussion about workers self-organizing to provide their own platforms on which to network”.
Even in the absence of formal channels to hold big sites accountable to creators, Keep suggests that connecting with others is key to surviving life as a freelance content creator. “Find people in your industry. It is so important to know that this change is not just affecting you, and to know whether or not you are being taken advantage of”.
If you want to know more about escaping the race to the bottom and holding minimum standards for rates, join CFU executive members Ethan Clarke and Michelle Keep for a webinar January 16th at 1pm ET. The meeting will be held on Zoom so you can join from anywhere. More details coming soon!