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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

In Ukraine, Online Gig Workers Keep Coding Through the War

At the end of January, Hanna Kompaniets received an email from Upwork, a website where for seven years she has connected with online clients to work as a virtual assistant. The email, which was sent to Ukrainian workers on the platform, said the company was tracking escalating tensions in Eastern Europe. “First and most importantly, we hope you are safe,” it said. Then it offered suggestions to Ukrainian freelancers to “help minimize any potential disruptions to your freelance or agency business and client relationships:” Keep clients updated on your safety, in case they get nervous. “Ensure all work is up-to-date.” Back up computers and other devices. “Please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay connected,” the email concluded.

Less than a month later, Russia invaded Ukraine, and Kompaniets says she hasn’t heard directly from Upwork since. “It made me angry,” she says. The email was “about the client’s safety and care, and not about freelancers.”

Freelancers or gig workers who piece together work on online platforms are a hidden engine of the Ukrainian economy—and the world’s. They sign on to English language websites including Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com, Russian ones including Fl.ru, and Ukrainian ones like Kabanchik.ua and the country’s most popular, Freelancehunt.com. They work as software engineers, project managers, IT technicians, graphic designers, editors, and copywriters. And they work for everyone, on long-term contracts or in piecemeal jobs: startups in Germany; a garage designer in Beaverton, Oregon; a musician in Toronto; big companies such as Airbnb, GE, and Samsung.

A 2018 survey by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, estimated that as many as 500,000 Ukrainians were registered on web platforms—up to 3 percent of the country’s workforce. An Oxford report found that the country is the world’s seventh largest supplier of online labor.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have pushed those numbers even higher. For companies in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, Ukraine is an attractive source of labor. Workers are well-educated, versed in tech, and often fluent in Russian and sometimes English. They tend to work for lower wages than their American or western European counterparts, though they earn, according to the ILO survey, slightly above the average Ukrainian wage.

Some companies have opened offices in Ukraine, and some of those—including, reportedly, Wix, Lyft, and Uber—say they are helping relocate employees and giving them extra time off. The online freelancing platform Fiverr has a small global development team in Ukraine, the majority of whom have either left the country or moved to “safe places” inside Ukraine, says spokesperson Siobhan Aalders.

Invading Russian forces have plunged freelancers’ home offices into chaos and uncertainty. Vlad, a video editor in southern Ukraine, says he’s grown accustomed to the air alarm signal, and hiding until it has passed. Now there are battles 30 miles from his home. “But as long as there is water, electricity, and internet, I can work,” he says. “Because we all need to live for something, eat something, and pay rent.”

Amid the war, some freelancers are renegotiating with clients—and relying on their goodwill. Kompaniets reached an agreement with two regular Upwork clients to pause on those projects, but continued to work for two others, sometimes from the basement of her home in Zaporizhzhya, in the country’s southeast. She says one client sent her a bonus through the platform. One product designer, who asked not to be named, says he’s been unable to focus since his family fled Kyiv for western Ukraine, but says he appreciates the flexibility that the contract work provides.

The situation is a particularly poignant reminder of the precarity of contract-based web work, says Valerio De Stefano, a labor law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Canada who studies platform workers in Europe. “When there is a crisis like this, a war, the labor market always suffers and workers always suffer,” he says. “Having said that, freelancers both online and offline heavily rely on their work for any sort of compensation, and when they don’t work, they don’t get an income.”

The war also raises questions about what platforms owe their contract workers. The workers bid on contracts from individuals and companies seeking help, and then the platforms typically take commissions of up to 20 percent of the payment. Now some Ukrainian workers are asking for a reprieve from the commissions. Ivanna Demianiuk has worked on Upwork and Fiverr since 2015, and carved out a niche as a contract project manager for US-based construction companies. She moved from Ukraine to Germany last fall, but still works with people who’ve been unable to leave Ukraine. “I said, ‘Can you at least during this difficult time stop charging fees and support us?’” she says. She says she received an automated message from Fiverr, and has not heard back from Upwork.

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Demianiuk is also among a growing number of contract workers asking the platforms to bar Russian clients from hiring and Russian freelancers from obtaining new contracts on their sites. The Ukrainian site Freelancehunt has agreed. These workers are part of a movement asking platforms to take political stands, says Hatim Rahman, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, who studies platform work “There’s a growing recognition not just among workers and regulators, but society that they want platforms to take a more active role when these sorts of conflicts happen,” he says.

Many larger tech companies have cut ties with Russian institutions in the past week. Google has removed Russian state media from its News feature and blocked some Russian financial institutions from Google Pay. Meta has barred Russian media from monetizing posts on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Netflix said it won’t comply with a Russian law requiring it to air state-funded media. Apple has stopped all product sales in Russia, and has limited Russian use of Apple Pay.

In a statement, Upwork says it has been working “to do everything in our power to ensure the safety, security, and wellbeing of our many team members on the ground in Ukraine.” Fiverr did not respond to questions about its stance on Russia, but Aalders, the spokesperson, said the company has created a dedicated support team for buyers and sellers affected by the war.

Kompaniets, the virtual assistant, says she is sending what she earns online to the Ukrainian army. “I’m happy to be in the middle of it,” she says. “Yes, it’s dangerous. But it’s meaningful.”

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