The Metamorphosis of Platform Work Since the Pandemic: A Regulatory Odyssey

Digitalisation is fundamentally changing long-established work and work forms, translating into a new future of work. One important driver of this change process is the rise of gig work. The latter emerged when an (ever-increasing) number of platforms started to act as digital intermediaries to connect gig workers with gig requestors (ILO, 2021). The gig economy has thus been described as work characterised by one-time services transacted through online platforms (Koutsimpogiorgos et al., 2020). Fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related need to (organise) work digitally, the gig economy has experienced significant growth, raising questions about its regulability. In this article, we discuss these challenges and how regulation leads to an increasingly diverse gig economy – enabling national policy makers to regulate this international labour market.

The Rise of the Online Gig Economy

In contrast to traditional labour markets, the ‘gig economy’ (also referred to as ’on demand’ or the ‘sharing economy’) refers to a particular segment of the labour market where ‘gig workers’ (also referred to as crowd workers or freelancers) provide services or complete tasks for clients (hereafter ‘gig requestors’) on a project-by-project or task-by-task basis (Koutsimpogiorgos et al., 2020). This appeals to a broad spectrum of workers who are either unable or unwilling to adhere to traditional 9-to-5 work schedules or who do gig work alongside their traditional job (ILO, 2021). It is the time and place flexibility, increased autonomy, low entry barriers and instant income that drives the uptake of this type of temporary work (Zwysen & Pisana). Although the defining features of the gig economy are often debated, there is broad consensus that digital labour platforms are a key constituting element as these ‘gig platforms’ provide the infrastructure and digital marketplace where work agreements for one-time, occasional or reoccurring services are negotiated, managed and delivered.

Importantly, gig platforms can be broadly categorised into two distinct modes of service provision. Initially, gig work revolved around on-site gigs, which are to be completed at the client’s premises (such as ridesharing, delivery, or cleaning), transacted by platforms like Uber, Airbnb, or Deliveroo. This model subsequently diverged into online gigs that are to be carried out on computers (e.g. translation, programming, or content creation), transacted by platforms such as UpWork, Fiverr and Freelancer. While on-site gig work often (but not always) demands low skills only, online gigs can include more complex and specialised tasks that require high skills. One additional major characteristic of the online gig economy is its cross-border nature as workers and clients may be located in different and very distant places. This makes the online gig economy the first truly global labour market. Such an expansion of work opportunities has created both benefits and challenges for workers, clients and regulators alike, amplified by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on gig work.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the global demand for online gig work

One of the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the increased growth of the gig economy, as both employers and workforces had to familiarise themselves with remote work options. From the perspective of labour demand, employers accordingly discovered the potential and feasibility of remote work on an unprecedented scale. When remote work became the new norm, companies had to adapt quickly by seeking additional or alternative workers who could contribute effectively from a distance. From the perspective of labour supply, workers in flexible labour markets who faced job losses sought alternative ways to sustain themselves financially. Others – motivated by the uncertainties of the pandemic – chose to leave their traditional jobs in pursuit of safer and more flexible income-generating opportunities (Houseman & Heinrich, 2015). The pandemic thus forced a paradigm shift in established forms of work and brought remote, platform-transacted gig work to the centre stage.

The increased growth of the gig economy is visible in both its online (see Figure 1) and its on-site segment (see Figure 2). Accordingly, Figure 1 shows how the global demand for online gig work on the part of requesters grew by about 40% between 2016 and 2020 and by another 40% during the first year of the pandemic.

Figure 1: Development of the Demand for Online Gig Services


Source: Online Labour Observatory at

Similarly, Figure 2 shows how the offer of on-site gig services in Europe and North America was spurred by the pandemic. More specifically, Figure 2 reveals that the extent to which on-site gig services were offered during the pandemic varied substantially by industry. Accordingly, the offer of (food) delivery services surged, while cleaning and ridesharing services were hardly offered due to lockdowns, social distancing measures and travel restrictions. For the offer of online gig work, a similar trend can be seen, but while the demand for online gig work increased by about 40% during the first year of the pandemic (Figure 1), the offer of online freelancing, and especially of online survey gigs, increased by up to 350% during the first lockdown months (Figure 2). This trend persisted until April 2020 when isolating restrictions eased, and financial assistance programs for workers were introduced (AppJobs, 2020). To conclude, the COVID-19 pandemic not only revealed the diverse nature of the gig economy but also served as a catalyst for its rapid expansion.

Figure 2: Gig Application Trends by Category


Source: AppJobs (2020). Future of Work Report

This significant increase in gig work quickly aroused public interest in and concern about the regulability of gig work. Given that the offer of gig services exceeds their demand manyfold, there is a risk that gig workers underbid each other to secure jobs without asking for a wage premium to build up retirement savings or insuring themselves against illness or work disability. Accordingly, a large share of work performed on online gig platforms is bought by requesters, located in the protected and thus more expensive labour markets of the Global North, from low-wage countries with less protected workforces. For instance, countries like India have become popular as digital outsourcing locations because of their strong English language proficiency and IT technical skills (Stephany et al., 2021). As such, there is a concern, particularly in countries with high labour protection, that the gig economy, due to its inherently digital and international nature, may lead to a race-to-the-bottom of labour standards as it extends beyond national boundaries and regulatory reach.

Is gig work really beyond the reach of national regulators?

Given the substantial growth of gig work and the frequent cross-border operations of gig platforms, the question arises as to whether it can be regulated at all at the national level. In this regard, it is important to note that gig work is subject to the labour laws of the country where it is performed. For instance, a German gig worker completing a translation job for a Spanish gig requester via the US-based platform Fiverr is bound by German labour laws. But do national governments have the power to regulate gig workers? Or will regulation, typically translating into higher gig wages, lead platforms to cease operations in one country, or result in a loss of gig opportunities as requesters hire gig workers from less regulated, less expensive countries?

Importantly, these questions need to be answered differently for the on-site and the online gig economies, because the on-site gig economy is geographically bound, while the online gig economy constitutes an international labour market. The physical nature of on-site services means that its regulation is relatively straightforward. Relocating gig services, such as a Spanish delivery requester using a German delivery driver, is simply impossible, even when gig work gets more expensive. Due to this geographic confinement, the national gig work standards of on-site gig work have been found to increasingly diverge between countries – in line with national labour laws. This is even the case for gig services transacted by the same platform. Accordingly, Helpling (transacting cleaning services) has tactically adapted to the institutional conditions of the country in which the cleaning services are performed, thereby preserving its status as an e-commerce intermediary, while altering its commission structure and allowing workers to set job prices themselves (Koutsimpogiorgos et al., 2023). Therefore, the concern that the gig economy, facilitated by internationally operating platforms, cannot be regulated at the national level is not applicable to on-site gig work.

Online gig work, which is largely de-localised, poses challenges to the territorial nature of regulations and enforcement. While factors such as geographical proximity, shared languages and time zones further influence hiring decisions in the online gig economy (Van Slageren, Herrmann & Frenken, 2022), online gig platforms make the relocation of work from high- to low-wage countries easily possible. Importantly though, the relocation of skill requests is less likely whenever gig workers possess specific skills that are not readily available in other markets. Another recent study accordingly suggests that gig workers with such rare, specialised skills might be shielded from the impacts of gig wage fluctuations resulting from labour protection measures (Van Slageren & Herrmann, 2023). In other words, if online gig workers specialise, i.e. when skills and services are offered that are not easily replicated by workers in other countries, this makes them less susceptible to international price pressures. This, in turn, raises the possibility of national regulation, such as establishing a minimum wage threshold or social security contributions, as gig requests cannot easily relocate to less protected, less expensive gig countries.

Conclusion and policy implications

To conclude, although gig platforms often operate internationally, the gig economy is not beyond the reach of national governments. This implies that national regulation can be effective not only in the on-site segment but also in the international online segment of the gig economy. As a consequence, we are witnessing an increasing diversification in the modus operandi of on-site gig platforms, and an increasing specialisation of workers on online platforms.

As gig work continues to grow, it will be both necessary and effective for policy makers to issue regulation at the national and international level to ensure the protection of workers’ rights and well-being, regardless of the type of gig work they engage in. In this regard, the EU ‘gig work directive’ (2019/1152) is a promising initiative – as is the draft directive issued by the European Commission in December 2021 to establish employment conditions for gig workers. However, national policy makers can go beyond such supranational regulation that typically establishes only ’minimum rights’ (EU 2019/1152, Art. 4) that lag behind the national labour protection of many Western economies. One option for such national regulation is mandating gig platforms to contribute to social security based on the revenue they generate, along the lines of Germany’s Künstlersozialkasse (KSK). Given the rapid expansion of the gig economy, and the policy options to regulate it, it is imperative that policy makers take the initiative to ensure that this new labour market can become one that offers genuine work opportunities rather than precarious working conditions.


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