Most gig workers worried about impact of an unfair rating

A new study shows the impact a bad rating can have on gig workers and says the algorithms used by leading freelance platforms lack transparency.

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The majority of gig workers are anxious about being at the mercy of rankings which leave them vulnerable to malicious customers and a single bad rating, according to new research.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Bristol and University of Oxford, analysed the reputation systems of some the biggest gig economy platforms, such as Upwork and Fiverr, which use customer feedback to produce ratings. It found the algorithms – processes used to rank workers according to performance metrics – lack transparency and are highly volatile, leaving workers vulnerable to capricious and malicious customers.

The study showed seven in 10 gig economy freelancers working remotely from across the world for some of the biggest online platforms, providing services ranging from data entry to website design, were worried about clients providing unfair feedback and negatively affecting their future earnings.

Lead author sociologist Dr Alex Wood, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Future of Work at Bristol Business School, said: “It was shocking how workers expressed continuous worry about the potential consequences of receiving a single bad rating from an unfair or malevolent client, and how this could leave them unable to continue making a living.”

The situation is creating a growing trend of ‘reputational insecurity’ in the workforce, where self-employed contract workers are experiencing greater instability and concern about future access to work in a turbulent economy.

Unlike traditional references and personal recommendations, gig economy platforms rely on algorithmic systems that score and rank workers according to customer-generated online ratings. Special categories, such as ‘Rising star’ and ‘Top rated’, are created to allegedly denote high-quality and trustworthy workers. But the study found the algorithms are opaque and unstable, leaving workers anxious about how they will be rated by potentially malicious customer ratings.

The fleeting nature of reviews also means some workers have been resorting to put in extra hours unpaid or even doing entire jobs for free in a desperate bid to avoid negative ratings. This finding emerged from qualitative interviews carried out by the researchers in international cities, including London, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manila. The researchers also analysed surveys of nearly 900 gig economy workers from the UK and Europe. Around seven in 10 (67%) of the 436 UK workers agreed ‘reputational insecurity’ is widespread, while 62% of the 430 from Europe felt this was true.

Dr Wood said: “We discovered some workers continued to make free revisions for clients to help ensure their satisfaction and favourable feedback. Others cancelled the contract and provided their work for free if they felt the customer was unhappy and might leave a harmful rating.”

The study, published in Sociology, found the companies operated without checks and balances to verify the ratings and effective processes to seek redress and corrections were also lacking.

A recent national The Understanding Society survey indicated there are approximately 600,000 gig economy workers in the UK, who have used a website, platform or app to make money and around a third are remote online workers.



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