How big is the online labour workforce? Our data-driven approach to this tricky question

Development in digital communication technologies has made transacting work remotely easier and more economical. Online labour platforms, also known as online outsourcing, crowd-work, or online gig platforms, are at the forefront of this transition. They allow workers to serve multiple clients at varying hours remotely from their homes or co-working spaces instead of working full-time for a single employer. As this new form of work is becoming more popular, the global demand for online freelancing has been growing by 11% annually within the last five years, as the Online Labour Index shows.

Counting online gig workers is tricky

While quantifying the number of online freelance vacancies is already a difficult endeavour, measuring the number of online gig-workers, on the other hand, is even more complex. Current economic statistics are not well suited to measuring the online freelance population, in terms of both capturing its full extent as well as distinguishing its impact from other activities. In past work, we have shown that the online gig worker population is particularly difficult to measure because of several reasons:

  • Since online work is often a source of supplementary income, labour force surveys do not capture it.
  • Moreover, many online workers might not report their earnings to tax agencies, especially if their earnings are small.
  • In most cases, platform companies are not considered employers and thus are not required to report the income earned by the workers, as explained in one of our previous blog posts.

At the same time, our latest research findings show that online freelancing plays an important role for economic development in rural areas and is of increasing relevance as a form of remote work in times of the global Covid-19 pandemic. But how many workers, then, are doing this type of work?

There are (approximately) 19 million active online workers

In our recent working paper, we try to answer the question of “How Many Online Workers are there in the World?” and portray a data-driven way of estimating the size of the global online freelance population. We extrapolate the data gathered from 162 of the 351 globally relevant online freelance platforms and use public data sources to obtain three measures of worker numbers for each platform: the number or registered worker profiles, the number of active workers, i.e., who have ever worked on a platform, and the number of full-time workers, i.e., who completed at least 10 projects, or earned at least $1000. We collected these numbers through a combination of media mentions, literature review, and platforms’ search functionalities.

Our extrapolation concludes that in 2020, globally, there are (parameter uncertainty estimates are in [brackets]):

  • 163 million [152 million, 205 million] registered user accounts,
  • 11.5% [0.5%, 36.8%] of whom are active, and
  • 3% [0.1%, 10%] of whom are full time.

Using the midpoints of the error bands as our best guesses for true values of the numbers, the shares correspond to 19 million active workers, and 5 million full time workers. We underline that our estimations come with statistical uncertainty; the numbers in brackets, represent 95% error bands of the estimates. Also, these conclusions might still change as the paper goes through peer-review and we add data points.

In comparison to previous findings, these numbers suggest a substantial growth from 2015 in registered worker accounts, but much less growth in amount of work completed by workers. Our results indicate that online freelancing represents a non-trivial segment of labour today, but one that is spread thinly across countries and sectors.

This work is the first to use a fully quantitative and transparent approach to estimating the absolute number of online workers globally. Beyond providing a headline number, the more general contribution of our paper is that we outline the relevant quantities researchers need to know when trying to understand how many online workers there are on the globe.

Kässi, O., Lehdonvirta, V., & Stephany, F. (2021). How Many Online Workers are there in the World? A Data-Driven Assessment.