Crowdworking in Ukraine

Crowdworking in Ukraine: A success for some but concerns for others

Translator, Julia Gotra, has made a success of working on a digital labour platform. However, an ILO report on online work in Ukraine shows that there are also risks associated with this new flexible way of working.

Feature | 02 August 2018
© Michael Coghlan
VINNYTSIA, Ukraine (ILO News) – Julia Gotra is as busy as ever at this time of year. The 27-year-old online platform worker is finishing a big translation project for one of her main clients. However, Gotra does not have an office and has forgotten what it means to commute to her workplace. She works from home, in her native city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine, miles away from her clients who can be based anywhere in Western Europe, North America or Asia.

Gotra has been a digital labour platform worker (also known as a “crowdworker”) for the last four years.

“It all started when I lost my job as a human resources director. It was a well-paid job considering the level of wages in Ukraine so I had to find a way to restore the standard of living I used to have,” she recalls.

She heard about work on online platforms, which are increasingly popular in Ukraine.

According to a new ILO report, Work on Digital Labour Platforms in Ukraine: issues and Policy Perspectives, Ukraine leads Europe with the number of people actively working on digital labour platforms. The country’s success is due in part to its educated and tech-savvy population, but also reflects a lack of local opportunities as a result of prolonged economic and political difficulties.

Ukranian workers have access to more than 40 different digital platforms, the report found, offering short and long term work to ‘freelancers’. Many work with texts, doing tasks such as copywriting. Assignments may also relate to information technology, such as website management and programming.

As a translator, Julia Gotra thought she would give it a try and registered on two online platforms with mostly international clients.

“I thought that it could be what I needed since they were looking for translators and I had the right language skills, being fluent in English,” she explains.

At first, Gotra still kept another traditional job, which was poorly paid, as she was not sure she could succeed in finding work online. Indeed, the first months of her online career were challenging. In those early days she would mainly find small tasks to do and had to face a lot of competition from other online workers.

“There were times when I was working just one hour a day. This was the case when all I could find was a proof-reading job of 500 words, which would take barely 15 minutes to do and coming with a very small remuneration,” she says.

However, her reputation as a reliable translator quickly spread. Six months later, she decided she had enough online clients to drop her other job. Gotra now works on a closed platform for translators. "Closed" means that she was invited to register there by one of her foreign clients, had to fill in a questionnaire, and pass tests to be accepted. The Platform's manager decided whether she would be 'hired' or not. Had she not succeeded, she would have had to wait two years before re-applying.

She mainly translates corporate texts which include site content, text for training modules or marketing materials, usually from English to Russian or from English to Ukrainian. She also sometimes translates legal documents. Her portfolio of clients include beauty and luxury fashion brands; companies producing engine oils, tyres and cars; pharmaceutical companies, major card payment systems; hotel networks, as well as major airlines.

Opportunities and risks

“I really like my job because it gives me the opportunity to work on different topics. It involves a lot of research and I feel that I am learning a lot. Also, I managed to build good relations with my clients and I never felt let down by them.”

She also enjoys the flexibility offered by her job.

“I would certainly not want to go back to working office hours and feeling obliged to stay at work because my 8 hour-shift is not over even though I have done all the work I was requested to do. Nowadays, I work until I finish my job and then I can have the rest of the time to be with my family, see my friends and play sport,” she explains.

However, she recognizes there are also some down sides to her online work.

“There are times when I have so much to do that I need to work up to 20 hours a day, when ideally I would like to work for 6 hours a day. It’s like a marathon.”

Though Gotra has a constant stream of clients through the platform, she has had to comply with different conditions than those she would have had in a traditional office job.

“Although I now work exclusively for one platform, I am considered a freelancer, which means I have no work contract and no social benefits,” she explains.

Yet despite her status as a freelancer, Gotra, is often monitored by her clients, having to download special software onto her computer that tracks her working time and takes random screenshots of her activity. Indeed the report found that one out of four workers had downloaded special software or had to supply screenshots of their work; over a third had clients request they be available during specific hours.

Nonetheless, Gotra works informally without protection relating to working time, minimum wages, or social security contributions, and without the legal right to join a trade union. Currently there are no laws regulating online work. The lack of labour protections for online workers is a key finding of the report.

When asked, Gotra does not seem too concerned that she does not have social protection, stating she is “too young to think about financing her retirement.”

“The reality is that my earnings working on an online platform are twice as much as what I would make with a formal job in Ukraine, so I can just save money myself,” she says.

Another issue for Gotra is that the Ukrainian financial system is ill-prepared for international revenues.

“I am not allowed to receive money by Paypal in Ukraine so I have to use bank transfers to get payments from my clients. Such money transfers take at least 9 days and there are very high fees. Over the last few years, I calculated that I spent as much as $4000 in fees,” she complains.

There are also times when she feels a little insecure, especially when, suddenly, no jobs are available and she wonders whether it is just temporary or part of a lasting trend.

“Luckily, one reason why I get such a high income on average compared to other crowdworkers is that I have become an experienced translator and the clients I work for keep on coming back to me because they need the same linguistic style that could be different if they used another translator.”

Young and educated workers

Just like Julia Gotra, the ILO report shows that Ukrainian crowdworkers are generally young and have a high level of education. Yet, contrary to her situation, only one in four workers rely on this type of work as their main source of income.

“Actually, the main reason why workers choose online work is to earn additional income. Other reasons include a preference to work from home, better pay on the platforms as compared to the offline world, and the inability to find work elsewhere,” says Mariya Aleksynska, lead author of the report.

“Those working for foreign clients like Julia have considerably higher earnings, but most online workers earn monthly incomes that are, on average, only slightly above the average gross wage in the country,” she adds.

Among the 1000 labour platform workers in Ukraine surveyed, one out of three had also experienced fraud and non-payment for work they had carried out.

The report also shows that three quarters of online workers are not paying social security contributions, though they are still entitled to basic universal state-provided medical and retirement benefits. Three quarters of online workers do not save for their retirement in any way.

“Our study shows that digital work carries opportunities for Ukrainian society, as well as risks. It is crucial to be aware of those risks to better manage them. There is clear scope for an explicit government policy to fully unleash the potential from digital labour platforms for Ukrainian society, but also to formalize crowdwork,” Aleksynska concludes.