3. Conceptual framework, concepts and definitions

The objective of this chapter is to provide a statistical framework that sufficiently captures and explains digital platform work and digital platform employment, taking into account the variety of types of digital platforms linked to them. Currently there is no internationally agreed terminology and standard definitions of digital platform work and related concepts. Different terms and concepts with different scopes and objectives are often used interchangeably. As a result, statistical measurement suffers from a lack of clear understanding of the phenomenon, and available statistics are not comparable nor harmonized at the international level. This situation calls for a comprehensive statistical framework that organizes the different components and concepts of what can be broadly termed digital platform work, in order to meet the urgent need for data necessary to inform policy debates.

The chapter is structured in four different sections. The first section describes the statistical framework of the digital economy from an economic viewpoint. It introduces the concept of employed persons in the digital economy. This is distinct from those of digital platform work and digital platform employment, but is of high relevance when, for example, estimating GDP growth and productivity in the digital economy, and its contribution to the economy as a whole.

The second section provides a definition of digital platforms that is relevant for identifying digital platform work. These digital platforms are considered to be value-generating, digital interfaces that intermediate between three distinctive agents (the owner of the platform, the worker providing the services, and the user or consumer of these services). Digital platforms provide services and tools that are under the control of the economic unit that owns the digital platform, and enable the owing economic unit to monitor the process and to exercise some degree of control over the productive activities (i.e. work) taking place on the digital platform. This section also provides a general overview of the landscape of digital platforms, including (but not limited to) digital platforms relevant for the identification of digital platform work. This overview provides categories for different types of digital platforms, distinguishing between digital platforms offering services, digital platforms facilitating and mediating exchange between users, and digital labour platforms mediating work.

The third section provides a general definition of digital platform work. Based on the definition of work provided by Resolution I of the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS), digital platform work is defined as any productive activity performed by persons to produce goods or provide services carried out through or on a digital platform. The definition is broad and includes different forms of digital platform work. These include digital platform work for own-use, digital platform employment, digital platform unpaid trainee work, digital platform volunteer work and other work activities carried out on or through a digital platform. As such, the definition recognizes that digital platform employment is only one out of many forms of work that can take place on or through a digital platform.

The last sections focus on digital platform employment. It outlines a flexible framework that contributes to a comprehensive measurement of digital platform employment, and that provides the possibility to focus on one or more specific parts. Depending on policy interest and objectives, as well as on available statistical sources, national statistical offices and users can adjust the scope of a given measurement. This adjustment of scope may consider one or more of the following elements: i) the form of work of concern; ii) whether a given measurement includes the provision of services or/and the production of goods; iii) whether the measurement is restricted to external digital platform employment only or/and targets internal digital platform employment; iv) whether all types of digital platforms that meet the definition of digital platforms relevant for measuring digital platform work are included; and v) whether the measurement is restricted to a specific type of digital platforms. The flexibility in the framework and in its different components, reflects different policy objectives and user needs, as well as the recognition that a range of statistical sources are needed to provide in-depth and comprehensive data on digital platform employment and of its different components.

Advances in information and communications technology (ICT) as well as the development of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other innovations have spurred the growth of the digital economy, in which both people and businesses increasingly rely on digital modes of exchange for economic and social purposes. The digital economy, in its broadest definition, now spans all sectors of the economy; it has been characterized as

“all economic activity reliant on, or significantly enhanced by the use of digital inputs, including digital technologies, digital infrastructure, digital services and data. It refers to all producers and consumers, including government, that are utilising these digital inputs in their economic activities” (OECD, 2020, p. 32[1]).

Methodological work currently is ongoing to develop a framework for measuring the digital economy in economic statistics, including in the context of the System of National Accounts (SNA). The OECD definition of the digital economy provided above is translated in a measurement perspective built around four layers, moving from the centre towards broader definitions in its outer layers (OECD, 2020[1]).

  • The core layer in Figure 3.1 includes all economic activities related to the production of ICT goods such as semiconductors and processors, computers, smartphones, software and algorithms, as well as digital services such as internet and telecom networks.

  • The narrow layer includes all core digital activities, but also economic units that rely on digital technology and data to operate, such as mobile payment platform, e-commerce or digital labour platforms.

  • The broad layer includes all economic units included in the narrow layer but also units whose production has been significantly enhanced by digital technologies and data.

  • The final layer, i.e. the digital society, includes all digital activities undertaken by individuals in a society that are not carried out for pay or profit.

The four different layers of the digital economy have implications for labour statistics. The different forms of work and, in particular, of employment are significantly impacted by digital activities, with implications for the calculation of productivity in the different layers of the digital economy. Economic statistics can be viewed as representing one side of the digital economy while labour statistics capturing another side of the same phenomenon. These two different perspectives are complementary; both are necessary in order to gather comprehensive data on the digital economy. Yet it is also important to be aware of their differences. From the perspective of economic statistics, the number of employed persons engaged by economic units of the different layers of the digital economy is crucial information. The concept of employed persons in the digital economy is, however, conceptually different from that of digital platform work or of digital platform employment. Employed persons in the digital economy would include all workers engaged by the enterprise belonging to the digital economy, independently of whether these work activities are conducted through or on a digital platform; from this (economic) perspective, the essential feature is whether the economic unit is within the digital economy or not. From the point of view of digital platform work, however, the essential aspect is whether the work (paid or unpaid) is carried out through or on a digital platform.

The two perspectives are different in nature and objective but complementary and to some extent overlapping. While the economic unit that owns and develops the digital platform would be part of the narrow layer of the digital economy, the digital platform worker would more likely form part of the broad layer of the digital economy. A digital platform is owned and controlled by an economic unit that relies on digital technology and digital information for its own production. These economic units do not typically produce ICT goods or services but use ICT technology and data, hence they should be categorized as belonging to the narrow layer. A digital platform worker, however, uses the digital platform as part of carrying out the work. Some digital platforms workers could be completely dependent on the digital platform, as their work could not have been conducted at all if not facilitated by the digital platform, while others might use the digital platform as a substitute or complement to other ways of conducting the work. The first group of digital platform worker would be included in the narrow layer of the digital economy while the latter would be included in the broad layer. Workers carrying out digital platform work without the intention of generating an income or profit, such as volunteer work, would form part of the broader concept of digital society.

A number of different definitions of digital platforms have been provided for different purposes (see for example ( (Eurofound, 2018[2]); (De Stefano, 2016[3])). These definitions typically underline slightly different aspects of what is perceived as a digital platform. In some cases, they also imply a different scope of what should be measured (for example, by limiting the definition to digital platforms that mainly intermediate services, or by only including labour platforms). Nonetheless, there seem to be a general understanding of what a digital platform is. Most definitions view a digital platform as a “digital interface” or an “online service provider”, in these definitions, the digital platform is positioned between the providers of the services or goods and their clients or customers (see, for example, (ILO, 2018[4]), (OECD, 2019[5])).

The recognition that digital platforms intermediate between three distinctive agents suggests that the digital platform needs to be understood as an economic unit separated from the provider and the receiver of the goods and services. The digital platform is owned and operated by an economic unit (i.e. an enterprise) that does not provide a digital solution to enterprises or consumers as end-products in themselves, but that rather provides digital services or applications that enable or facilitate the direct or indirect interaction between the provider and the receiver of the goods and services. The service or tool of the digital platform nevertheless remains under the control of the economic unit that owns it. This makes digital platforms distinct from other digital solutions, programs and platforms (for example windows, java etc.) that are sold as products to other enterprises and consumers. The definition of digital platforms as distinct agents also allows the enterprise that owns and controls them to exercise some degree of control over the activities taking place on the digital platform and gives it some capacity to monitor the process. This is different from only having the rights of the digital products but where no control is exercised over the activities that take place on the digital products. This control would typically be set by the rule of participation and work process in the platform as set by their terms of service agreements (ILO, 2021[6]).

The objective of digital platforms is to create value added through network effects. This additional value can take the form of profits for the economic unit but also of additional social value. Examples of the latter would include non-profit digital platforms that rely on voluntary contributions from the contributors (Wikipedia) or that are directed toward the creation of collective goods, such as “citizen scientist” crowdsourcing projects. Such digital platforms would not create direct monetary value but would contribute towards creating public goods benefitting society as a whole.

Digital platforms provide the digital tools and services that enable the delivery of the service or good. In many cases, however, the digital platforms do no not limit its services to merely matching providers and receivers, but also provide an integrated set of tools or services that allow transaction and payments to take place on the platforms.

Based on these different characteristics, digital platforms relevant for identifying digital platform work are considered to include any digital interface that generates economic and/or social value and that intermediates between three distinctive agents (the owner of the platform, the provider of labour services, and the final user of the goods and services produced). The digital platform provides services and tools that remains under the control of the economic unit that owns it and enables the owing economic unit to exercise some degree of control over the productive activities (i.e. work) taking place and to monitor the work process on the digital platform.

These digital platforms can be identified by the following attributes:

  • it acts as a digital interface or platform between multiple parties:

    • the provider (or worker) that provides the services or goods; and

    • the receiver (customer/consumer) that receives the services or goods

  • it generates economic and/or social value through network effects;

  • it provides a common set of integrated digital tools and services that enable the delivery of the services or goods, and the monitoring of the process;

  • It incorporates an assessment or evaluation of the delivery of the service or goods through an integrated rating, review mechanisms or similar tools; and

  • it sets the rule of participation in the platform through their terms of service agreements, which can include aspects such as:

    • who can participate and how entry is gained?

    • how are contracts and prices determined?

    • how disputes will (will not) be handled?

Applying these attributes creates a broad definition of digital platforms that can constitute the foundation for a comprehensive conceptual framework on digital platform work without being too restrictive at the outset. This broad definition will allow statistical offices to provide a comprehensive measurement as well as to focus on some specific parts of digital platform work depending on national need and context. This approach also responds to the need to have a relatively flexible conceptual definition that takes into account the future evolutions of digital platforms, structure and business models.

Digitalization is permeating into different sectors of the economy, with digital platforms facilitating interactions between firms or individuals through digital services, apps and the internet (OECD, 2019[5]). Figure 3.2 provides the broad landscape of different types of digital platforms including digital platforms that do not meet the definition provided previously, showing that almost all major economic sectors are witnessing their penetration. The use of digital platforms in the various sectors of the economy can be classified into two categories: i) those that provide digital services or products such as search engines or social media, among others; and ii) those that facilitate and mediate between different users, such as business to business (B2B) and digital labour platforms.

A range of digital platforms from social media such as Facebook or TikTok to communication platforms such as Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp or Viber offer services to individual and business users, and increasingly play an important role in the socio-economic lives of people around the world. Digital platforms enable the electronic transfer of products such as software programs or music streaming that are delivered digitally and remotely to consumer and businesses. Such platforms have had profound effects on a number of traditional industries, including the news and media industry, whereby online news and media platforms have emerged to provide news in real time.

The digital economy comprises both B2B and business to consumers (B2C) platform models (Figure 3.2). In both the B2B and B2C domain, the retail sector has witnessed an exponential rise in digital platforms, with important implications for how traditional retail businesses conduct their operations and for their employment consequences. Well-known online retail platforms include Amazon, Alibaba and Flipkart, among others. These platforms often act as a third-party, mediating transactions between, for example, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and micro- entrepreneurs, on one side, and final customers, on the other. For example, 60% of the products sold on Amazon are from third-party sellers (with 1.7 million SMEs benefitting from the platform) (Bezos, 2020[7]).

Digital platforms are also penetrating into other sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture and finance, but they are still in a nascent stage. In the manufacturing sector, platform networks connect firms or suppliers in a timely manner with other firms or individuals, based on the customer’s needs and geographical proximity. For instance, Xometry and LaserHub connect suppliers with material processing industry, while Tao-factory, which operates mainly in garment and light industries, connects enterprises with consumers or customers on e-commerce platforms such as Taobao. Once the buyer on the e-commerce platform places the order, the value chain is set in motion, and the order is manufactured and then delivered (Zeng, 2018[8]).

In the agricultural sector, digital penetration has largely been through the provision of farm management software tools and technologies via mobile applications or the Internet of Things. These digital technologies support small farmers to create optimal conditions for sowing, watering, fertilizing and harvesting, to access markets and improve productivity. Some digital platforms such as Agri Marketplace or Open Food Network also connect farmers with markets and consumers. Similarly, large digital transformations are taking place in the financial sector, with transactions mediated through platforms that provide a range of financial services, or payment platforms such as PayPal, Paytm, VENMO or TransferWise.

Technological advances in the labour market have led to new ways of organizing work, thereby transforming both work processes and how people work. In this regard, digital labour platforms have emerged as a distinctive part of the digital economy, because of the way they connect businesses and clients to workers. These platforms facilitate and mediate work between individual suppliers (platform workers and other businesses) and clients, or directly engage workers to provide labour services. The work delivered by workers on these platforms are commonly referred to as “platform work” or “gig work”. The work on digital labour platforms can be categorized into two types: i) online web-based platforms, where tasks are performed online and remotely by workers; and ii) location-based platforms, where tasks are performed in real physical locations by individuals.

Online web-based labour platforms offer a variety of services to both individual consumers and business customers. Four main categories can be distinguished, based on the duration and complexity of the tasks performed, as well as on the skills and remuneration of the workers involved:

  • The first category includes freelance platforms such as Upwork, Freelancer.com and others, specializing in particular fields, such as translations, financial services, legal services, patent services, design and data analytics.

  • The second category includes contest-based and competitive programming platforms such as 99Designs, Topcoder, HackerRank whereby workers compete with one another to solve complex programming problems within a designated time, with the winner(s) chosen by the clients to receive the award. Many workers also use these platforms to hone their skills.

  • The third category includes microtask platforms such as AMT and Clickworker, in which workers complete short tasks such as data annotation, data entry, data cleaning, accessing content (for example, visiting websites or social media sites to increase traffic), content moderation (the purging of violent and pornographic images from social media sites), copywriting or audio transcription.

  • The fourth category includes professional service platforms for doctors or tutors such as MDLive, DocOnline or tutor.com, which allows individuals to access professionals in medicine, education or other fields for online consultations.

Location-based platforms offer services that often exist in traditional labour markets, such as taxi and delivery services, but differ in that the services delivered are mediated through the platform. There has been much debate in recent years around taxi and delivery platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo, Swiggy, Ola and others; yet there are other types of location-based platforms that offer a range of other services such as in domestic work, care provision or home services, wherein individual workers provide labour services to individual customers in their private homes or to businesses.

The work on digital labour platforms is often performed on a ‘on-demand basis’, wherein the logic of the “just-in-time” inventory system is applied to the labour process (Vallas, 2018[9]). Compensation is typically on a piece or task-rate basis. As workers are classified by the platforms as independent workers, they are often required to provide their own capital equipment ( (Stanford, 2017[10]); (Drahokoupil, 2016[11])). Yet despite being classified as independent workers, they often lack the freedom and autonomy to organize their work, as algorithmic management practices are used to allocate, manage, supervise and reward these workers.

The concept of digital platform work is based on the concept of work as defined in the 19th ICLS resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilization (19th ICLS resolution I). The 19th ICLS resolution I defines work as “any activity performed by persons of any sex and age to produce goods or to provide services for use by others or for own use” (Para 6, (ILO, 2013[12])). The statistical concept of work is broad and includes all activities within the SNA general production boundary. Depending on the intended destination of the goods and services produced and the form of remuneration, all activities defined as work can be categorized in one of five different forms of work. These are: i) own-use production work; ii) employment; iii) unpaid trainee work; iv) volunteer work; and v) other work activities (see Box 3.1).

Based on the framework provided in the 19th ICLS resolution I, and the concept of digital platforms as defined above, digital platform work can be defined as:

any productive activity performed by persons to produce goods or provide services carried out through or on a digital platform, AND:

- the digital platform or a phone app controls and/or organizes essential aspects of the activities, such as the access to clients, the evaluation of the activities carried out, the tools needed for conducting the work, the facilitation of payments, distribution and prioritization of the work to be conducted; and

- the work is for at least one hour in the reference period.

First, this definition is broad and includes different forms of digital platform work. Building on the 19th ICSL Resolution, these include: i) digital platform work for own-use; ii) digital platform employment; iii) digital platform unpaid trainee work; iv) digital platform volunteer work; and v) other work activities carried out on or through a digital platform. As such, the definition recognizes that digital platform employment is only one out of many forms of work that can take place on or through a digital platform.

Second, this definition emphasises the notion of control and organisation by the platform, which is essential to disentangle digital platform work and non-DPE work taking place via a platform. For example, a customer and a service provider exchanging via Teams or Zoom does not constitute digital platform work, as these two communication platforms do not offer integral services like ratings of participants, payments and matching of the two parties. Conversely, the classification as digital platform work is straightforward with platforms offering ratings of participants, payment services and algorithmic matching, such as Uber or Upwork. In between those two examples, classification can be difficult when a platform displays some but not all of the usual attributes of a digital platform. For instance, the French platform Doctolib allows patients to make appointments with doctors (hence completes a matching based on location and availability), or to organise a video consultation for which an online payment can be made; on the other hand, this platform does not rate doctors or patients, nor does it realise payments for physical consultations. In the case of Doctolib and other ambiguous situations, the classification as DPE work depends on the objectives of the statistical analysis and on the exact specification of its scope.

This broad concept of digital platform work includes activities within the SNA production boundary as well as activities such as direct volunteer work providing services that are outside the SNA production boundary but inside the general production boundary. Yet this broad concept would be difficult to capture with one single statistical source and would have limited analytical relevance or statistical value on its own. Rather, the concept of digital platform work should be seen as an overarching concept that consists of its different statistical components. These components can, as a starting point, be constructed around the different forms of work described in Figure 3.4, in order to reflect the intent of the digital platform work and whether the digital platform work is carried out for pay or profit.

  • Digital platform work for own-use, i.e. the production of goods and services for own final use that is carried out on or through a digital platform. The defining characteristics of digital platform own-use production work is that both the producer of the good or service and the intended user of them is in the same household or is another family member. The household or family members both produce the goods or services as well as consume them with the interaction or intermediation of a digital platform. Digital platform own-use production work would, for example, include the production of household services within a household where a digital platform is used to organize and distribute the services between the different household members. Examples include the platforms S’moresUp or Piicnic.

  • Digital platform employment, i.e. work performed for others on or through digital platforms with the intention to generate pay or profit. Digital platform employment includes a wide range of different activities such as persons selling goods through a digital platform or providing a variety of different services such as taxi and delivery services, clerical work, domestic cleaning and care services, posting videos or entertainment, web or logo designers, software developers, doctors, tutors and many more. The defining characteristic of all these activities is that they are carried out through or on a digital platform with the main intention to generate pay or profit. It is likely that a large part of the work carried out in relation to the digital platforms previously mentioned would fall under this category.

  • Digital platform unpaid trainee work, i.e. work performed for others on or through a digital platform without pay to acquire workplace experience or skills. This may potentially include a range of different activities with the critical feature that the person is producing a good or service for others to gain skills and work experience without remuneration, sometimes in order to gain access to paid employment. Possible examples include participation in competitive programming platforms (TopCoder, Hacker Rank) or design competitions (CoContest) when the intention is to gain or hone skills and not to participate with the intention of being compensated.

  • Digital platform volunteer work, i.e. non-compulsory work performed on or through digital platforms for others without pay. Digital platform volunteer work includes activities that are carried out for others but without any intention to generate remuneration. This could include digital platforms used for organizing community volunteering, players programming and uploading player-produced modifications into gaming programmes, crowdsourcing projects that seek input from “citizen scientists”, whether to help identify galaxies in space, map croplands, catalogue satellite imagery, or work on open source platforms such as SourceForge, etc.

  • Other work activities carried out through or on a digital platform include productive activities carried out through or on digital platforms that do not belong to one of the four forms of work previously defined. These could include forms of forced labour that takes place on or through a digital platform. The category is included to create a comprehensive statistical framework that includes all productive activities within the SNA general production boundary.

The different forms of digital platform work have essential differences in their characteristics as well as policy relevance. For example, digital platform volunteer work would be work performed through or on a platform to deliver goods or services for others to consume without remuneration, while the main intention of workers engaged in digital platform employment would be to receive a profit or income. A distinction between the different forms of digital platform work is essential from a policy perspective. This is also true from a statistical point of view. Measurement of the different forms of platform work would typically require different methodologies and the use of different statistical sources.

The focus of this handbook is on digital platform employment. This does not imply that the other forms of digital platform work are of lesser relevance. The measurement of, for example, digital platform volunteer work would be important to provide information on how volunteer work is provided on digital platforms, as well as for the broader measures of the size of the digital economy. Statistical sources used to measure these forms of work could also be used to measure digital platform work other than employment. This could include Time Use Surveys, volunteer work modules and other specialized surveys. However, the statistical measurement of forms of digital platform work other than employment will require further methodological work that, while important, goes beyond the scope of this handbook.

Digital platform employment includes all activities carried out by a person through or on a digital platform with the intention to generate pay or profit, AND:

- the digital platform or a phone app controls and/or organizes essential aspects of the activities, such as the access to clients, the evaluation of the activities carried out, the tools needed for conducting the work, the facilitation of payments, distribution and prioritization of the work to be conducted; and

- the work is for at least one hour in the reference period.

Digital platform employment is independent on the type of services or goods produced by the person, as long as the activities are either carried out directly on the digital platform (e.g. in case of online web-based platforms) or through the digital platform, i.e. activities are carried out outside the digital platform but have been enabled or facilitated by the digital platform (e.g. in case of location-based platforms).

Digital platform employment is a broad concept that needs to be further de-composed in order to be able to set boundaries that contribute to conceptual clarity and effective measurement. Such a de-composition can be constructed around the international classification of status in employment. All work activities defined as employment are linked to a job defined as a set of tasks and duties performed (or meant to be performed) by one person for a single economic unit (ILO, 2018[13]). Depending on the type of authority and type of economic risk the worker is exposed to, jobs can be categorized in different statuses in employment according to the International Classification of Status in Employment (ICSE-18).

One dichotomy within ICSE-18 is that between independent and dependent workers. While independent workers (i.e. employers, own-account workers) own the economic unit for which they work and control its activities, dependent workers (i.e. dependent contractors, employees, contributing family workers) do not have complete authority or control over the economic unit for which they work. While both independent and dependent workers can have a relationship to a digital platform, the situation of each type of worker – in terms of exposure to economic risk, the degree of dependency on the digital platform– would depend on the characteristics of their jobs, as reflected in their specific category of status in employment.

The relationship between the worker and the digital platform differs depending on the status in employment category of the worker involved. Independent workers, and to some extent dependent contractors, own and operate an economic unit or enterprise that is separated from the digital platform. For these workers, the digital platform is used as an external tool to provide their services or goods either to the digital platform or to the receivers of the goods and services through the digital platform. From the perspective of the digital platform, these workers would be external workers, in the sense that the digital platform does not have the responsibilities and obligations that comes with being an employer. Because of these characteristics, these workers can be considered as carrying out external digital platform employment.

The situation of workers carrying out external digital platform work is very different from that of workers directly engaged as employees by the digital platform to carry out work for the economic unit owning and controlling the digital platform. In these situations, the economic unit owning and controlling the digital platform has the responsibilities and authority that comes with being an employer. In this case, the worker would be covered by labour laws and social insurance according to the regulations of each country. Due to these differences, employees that carry out their work on or through the digital platform can be viewed as being in internal digital platform employment.

Different statuses in employment categories need to be understood broadly in relation to digital platform employment as the very notions of job and work will vary depending on the respondent. Some workers, classified as being in digital platform employment, might perceive their job as having a specific employment status. For others, the work carried out on or through the digital platform might be more sporadic, for just a few hours, or may be viewed as a hobby or as a way to earn some additional income. From a statistical point of view, however, all activities defined as employment are linked to a job. A person who spends just a few hours on an activity to earn some additional income in a given reference period would be classified as employed. If these activities are done on or through a digital platform, then this person would be within the scope of digital platform employment; depending on the status of its employment, the worker would be classified as carrying out either external or internal digital platform employment.

It is also important to stress that there is a difference between the legal status of the worker and the statistical definition of status in employment. The legal status of workers is defined by the laws and regulations of each country. The statistical categorization of status in employment rests upon the specific characteristics of the job as defined in the International Classification of Status in Employment (ICSE-18). While the two concepts are separate, the legal status of a worker will typically influence its statistical status. When, for example, the legal status for a group of workers is changed, and they are all reclassified as employees, then it is likely that the statistical status of these same workers will also change, as the legal change would likely affect the characteristics of the jobs used to define the statistical status of workers.

A large part of digital platform employment would likely fall within the category of external digital platform employment. This would include own-account workers and dependent contractors that carry out their work on or through an external digital platform with the intention to generate pay or profit. In addition, the category could also include employers in case the independent worker who carries out the work on or through the digital platform has hired one of more employees to assist the work.

Own-account workers or independent workers without employees, as termed in ICSE-18, are workers who operate an economic unit that does not have employees on a regular basis; they may, however, have contributing family workers assisting in the work as well as additional partners (ILO, 2018[13]). All workers in this category have sufficient control over their activities to be defined as independent workers, which distinguishes them from dependent contractors, for example. Own-account workers cover a wide range of workers in very different situations. The economic unit they own and operate might be an incorporated enterprise where the worker has committed significant financial or material resources, or the worker might be running what can best be described as a micro-enterprise, in which the worker only or mainly provides his or her labour as input. In the latter situation, the concepts of “economic-unit” and “enterprise” need to be understood conceptually and not as commonly understood. Many workers that carry out digital platform employment would fall into this category.

The status in employment category of dependent contractors was introduced with ICSE-18. Dependent contractors are characterized as having contractual arrangements of a commercial nature to provide goods or services but being operationally or economically dependent on that unit (ILO, 2018[13]). This dependency and reduced authority over essential aspects of their activities separates them from own-account workers. Dependent contractors who carry out work on or through a digital platform are of high policy interest. They include workers who not only use the digital platform for carrying out the work, but who are also dependent on the digital platform that controls essential aspects of the work, such as access to clients, setting the price for producing the services or goods delivered, and controlling the organization and the evaluation of the work. In addition, working methods of dependent contractors may be determined by the platforms that can in some circumstances regularly monitor their work as well. Much of the policy debate around the legal reclassification of workers in digital platform employment, and whether these should be recognised as employees or not, would typically concern this category. It would therefore be of high policy interest to statistically identify and quantify dependent contractors carrying out digital platform employment.

Employers own the economic unit in which they work and employ one or more persons to work as an employee on a regular basis. In addition, employers may have additional partners as well as contributing family workers (ILO, 2018[13]). In the case of employers, it is essential to recognize the difference between economic statistics and labour statistics. From a labour statistics point of view, digital platform employment is carried out by persons and not by economic units, which is an important distinction. An independent worker (including an employer) who owns and operates an enterprise might have a business model that categorises the enterprise as within the platform economy; however, the independent worker who runs the business would not be classified as carrying out digital platform employment if the work activities he or she conducts are not carried out through or on a digital platform. For instance, the CEO of a platform company (e.g. Uber) would be employed in the digital economy but not carry out digital platform employment. In other words, similar to own-account workers and dependent contractors, an employer can only be considered as carrying out digital platform employment if he or she carries out work directly on or through the digital platform and where the digital platform is an external agent belonging to a separate economic unit that controls the digital platform and the use of it.

Even if employers could conceptually conduct digital platform employment, the policy interest in measuring this group is more limited. From an economic statistics point of view, it is important to identify whether the economic unit owned by the employer is within the digital economy or not. However, from a labour market perspective, the relationship between employers and digital platforms would, in most cases, be a question of the business model of the enterprise owned by the employer rather than of the work characteristics of the employer. There might be exceptions to these situations, as in the case of an employer owning a micro-enterprise who engages employees to conduct work on or through an external digital platform, and where the employer also spends a significant share of his/her working time to conduct work on or through a digital platform. In these situations, the enterprise as such (even if only a micro-enterprise) would be conceptually part of the digital economy, and the employer would be considered as carrying out digital platform employment. This specific category could, if deemed relevant, be statistically identified to create a comprehensive measurement of digital platform employment.

Own-account workers and dependent contractors carrying out external digital platform employment are the core categories to measure due to the high policy interest in their situations. These workers are likely to be the largest category of digital platform employment in many countries. This category can be further de-composed into own-account workers and dependent contractors respectively, if feasible. Employers carrying out external digital platform employment would in general have less policy relevance; however, those employers who carry out a significant amount of their own work activities on or through an external digital platform could be identified as a separate category in the context of a comprehensive measurement framework.

Employees engaged by the digital platform (as an economic unit) would be classified by labour statistics as internal workers engaged by the platform with an agreement/contract of employment. In this case, the economic unit that owns and controls the digital platform would have the responsibilities, obligations and authority that comes with being an employer, while its employees might be effectively covered by labour laws and social insurance according to the legislation of each country. Employees engaged by the economic unit that own the digital platform can carry out a range of different activities including supporting the enterprise owing and controlling the digital platform (e.g. the programmer developing the platform) as well as carrying out work on or through the digital platform (for example a taxi driver engaged by the digital platform as an employee). In order to identify internal digital platform employment, it is therefore necessary to conceptually categorise employees engaged by the digital platform into two sub-categories:

  • employees carrying out internal digital platform work, i.e. workers engaged as employees by the economic unit that own the digital platform to perform work on or through the digital platform;

  • employees who are engaged by the economic unit owning the digital platform to perform without using the digital platform.

While the first group would include the taxi driver or pizza deliverer or online crowd-worker who are engaged by the digital platform as employees and who are using the digital platform as part of conducting their work, the second group would include the programmer who is hired as an employee to develop the platform as well as the accountant, human resource manager or the CEO. While these employees work directly for the economic unit owning the digital platform, their daily work activities may not necessarily be carried out through the platform. Both categories should be measured as part of economic statistics in order to calculate the productivity of the economic unit owning the digital platform; however, for digital platform employment, only the first sub-category would be of relevance.

The identification of workers engaged in internal digital platform employment would allow to quantify and track the impact of policy measures that legally re-classify workers in digital platform employment as employees. It would also allow countries to compare data across countries independently of the legal classification of these workers, to establish the working conditions for this specific group, as well as to track developments of this category relative to own-account workers and dependent contractors carrying out digital platform employment.

One particular issue with digital platform employment is that this type of work is in many countries sporadic and fragmented. For example, the COLLEEM pilot survey conducted in 14 European countries in 2017 (see Chapter 1) found that fewer than 2% of the working age population were “main platform workers”, defined as those who earn 50% or more of their income via platforms or who work more than 20 hours per week on these platforms (Pesole, 2018[14]). The sporadic nature of digital platform employment might call for introducing supporting concepts that could contribute to provide information on the prevalence of digital platform employment.

Two such complementing concepts are persons who have conducted digital platform work within a long reference period and persons who have received some income from digital platform employment. The advantage with these two supporting concepts is that they can rely on a different reference period and therefore identifies a higher number of persons who have carried out digital platform employment than in the case of using the standard definition of digital employment. As such, these concepts could be used to provide supporting information on the extent of digital platform employment within a country:

  • The prevalence of external digital platform employment within a longer reference period would describe the number of workers who have conducted external digital platform employment within a longer reference period, for example within the last 12 month. This supporting concept would give an indication on the populations’ overall participation in digital platform employment and can be viewed as an indication on the overall prevalence of digital platform employment among the population. This supporting concept takes into account the sporadic and fragmented character of digital platform employment, and would be particularly relevant in countries where regular digital platform employment is relatively new.

  • The number of persons who have gained any income from external digital platform employment within a longer reference period would capture all persons who have gained any income from external digital platform employment within a longer reference period, for example within the last 12 months. The concept could have some advantages from a measurement perspective and would give an indication on the populations’ overall participation in digital platform employment as well as the size of the income made from these activities. The supporting concept would exclude external digital platform work carried out with the intention to generate income or profit but where no profit has been made (or has not yet been received.).

The distinction between producing goods or services is traditionally not a key factor for the measurement of employment. Activities for pay or profit are included independently on whether they produce goods or services. However, the distinction between services and goods has been actively used and is even directly integrated within some of the definitions used by countries and organisations. For example, the definition of platform work by Eurofound (Florisson, 2018[15]) and the definition of platform workers used by the OECD (OECD, 2019[5]) are both restricted to services only, thus excluding digital platform employment where the main purpose is selling goods. Similarly, other services such as renting out an apartment have been excluded from the OECD definition based on the argument that these activities include a low amount of labour input (OECD, 2019[5]). The reason for excluding goods and services that have a high capital investment and low labour input are two-fold; first, because the labour input is perceived to be small in relation to the provision of services; and secondly, because platforms that focus on goods are perceived to exercise less control over how the activities are organized, see (Florisson, 2018[15]).

There might well be a general difference between platforms that focus on providing services and those that mediate goods. And yet, from the perspective of labour statistics, the definition of digital platform employment centres upon whether an activity for pay or profit has taken place. Renting out an apartment through a digital platform is a good example of this. While having an apartment rented out as such is not work, and would thus not be included in either employment or in digital platform employment, the activities associated with renting out the apartment are. These would include, for example, corresponding with clients, validating bookings, cleaning the apartment between guests, handing out the keys and keeping accounts, etc. The question from the perspective of digital platform employment is therefore not so much what is produced, but rather that an activity to produce something for pay or profit has been carried out on or through a digital platform.

There may be strong policy as well as measurement reasons for why statistics should focus on service production only, for example when detailed statistics on the impact of platforms in matching labour supply and demand are needed. In these situations, a focus on services would be meaningful and enable a more in-depth analysis of the characteristics of digital platform employment providing services. Yet by limiting the scope to digital platforms providing labour services, only a sub-part of total digital platform employment would be measured.

A number of different policy objectives and user needs might call for a measurement of digital platform employment. These can range from a general need to provide data on the prevalence and structure of digital platform employment in a country to the need for detailed information regarding a particular type of worker carrying out digital platform employment on or through some specific types of digital platforms. In order to meet the range of different objectives, flexibility is needed to adjust the conceptual boundaries depending on the specific area of interest. This flexibility can be achieved by assessing the relevant scope of the statistics needed for the particular objective at hand, based on four different conceptual layers.

  1. 1. Type of work: A starting point when deciding the most appropriate conceptual scope for statistics is the type of work that is to be measured. All forms of work can potentially be carried out on or through a digital platform, and could therefore be within the scope of digital platform work. While all the different forms of work would be of relevance to identify per se, this would require the use of different sources with adapted methodologies. From the perspective of labour statistics, the focus would naturally be on digital platform employment.

  2. 2. Type of production: As digital platform employment includes the production of both goods and services, a comprehensive measurement of digital platform employment would require the inclusion of both types of production. However, there might be strong policy reasons to focus measurement on the provision of services only. This reduced scope of digital platform employment would impact not only on the type of activities included in the measurement but also on the type of digital platforms included in the measurement. If limited to services only, this would imply a excluding digital platforms that mainly focus on the intermediation of goods.

  3. 3. External/Internal digital platform employment and type of status in employment: The current policy debate is focused on external digital platform employment, and in particular on external digital platform employment carried out by own account workers and dependent contractors. This is a core category included within the measurement framework proposed in this chapter in order to establish the prevalence of external digital platform employment among these categories of workers as well as their working conditions and characteristics. For a comprehensive measurement of external digital platform employment, the measurement can be extended to also include employers carrying out external digital platform work. The inclusion of internal digital platform employment, i.e. employees engaged by the digital platform to perform work on or through the digital platform would contribute to a comprehensive measurement of digital platform employment. Even though there might be less policy concern around this specific group, it could be important to include them in the conceptual scope in order to be establish the impact of policy measures to legally re-classify workers in digital platform employment as employees, and to allow countries to compare figures across countries independent of the legal classification of the workers carrying out digital platform employment.

  4. 4. Type of digital platform employment (DPE): The different types of digital platforms could also be a target in themselves. This would for example be the case when there is a need to provide in-depth information about workers carrying out their work on or through a specific type of digital platforms, for example, workers carrying out external digital platform employment through digital labour platforms. Such a focus would impact upon the conceptual boundaries for the measurement with a reduced scope and only include a limited part of the external/internal digital platform employment. However, there might still be strong reasons why such a reduction of the scope could be relevant taking into account the specific need of data.

The general framework proposed in this chapter can also be applied when using the supplementing concepts of external digital platform employment within a longer reference period and of persons who have gained any income from external digital platform employment within a longer reference period. The longer reference period or/and the income approach can be used to provide supplementary measures of external digital platform employment in general as well as for targeting one specific type of production, status in employment or digital platform described in Figure 3.5. This could be of relevance for operational reasons or if there is a need to identify persons who have carried out digital platform employment for a longer period of time.

The conceptual decomposition of digital platform work and digital platform employment based on the four different layers described above creates the possibility for a comprehensive measurement of digital platform employment, and enables national statistical offices and other data producers to, depending on the particular objective and policy interest, focus on a specific part(s), relate to a more limited measurement and to the broader concept of digital platform employment. It enables countries and other data collectors to clarify the specific conceptual scope that are used within a given measurement. The greater specificity will serve to increase transparency and the understanding of the data that are produced, which in the end will increase the degree of harmonization between countries.

In addition, the conceptual decomposition also suggests that different statistical sources might be more or less suitable to measure some specific components of digital platform employment. It is likely that a combination of statistical sources such as administrative records, labour force surveys, income and living condition surveys, Digital surveys, ICT surveys and specialized surveys will be needed in order to provide in-depth and comprehensive statistics covering all components of digital platform employment.

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