The highs and lows of global ‘hipster capitalism’

Online labour platforms open up all sorts of work. But workers can also be left exposed

Globalisation has had a tough year. Even some of its friends now say it has left too many people and places behind. But that is not the only story to be told.

I once interviewed a woman who lived in a town in northwest England with a high proportion of residents on out-of-work benefits. She had fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic pain. But from her home – sometimes in her pyjamas if she felt unwell – she worked for companies in Dubai and Lithuania.

Online platforms such as Freelancer, Skilled People and People Per Hour had connected her to a market for her HR consultancy skills that was simply not available on her doorstep. Globalisation had not left this woman behind; it had scooped her up.

I thought of her last month when Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, outlined his idea for a more "inclusive" form of global commerce "with the individual at its centre". He said that trading platforms such as Alibaba and creative marketplaces such as Etsy could rekindle cottage industries.


“Smaller scale firms can bypass big corporates and engage in a form of artisanal globalisation,” Carney concluded.

Hipsterish terminology notwithstanding, it is an interesting idea. It is true that technology platforms have lowered the fixed costs of exporting goods or services, allowing people who would otherwise struggle to participate in the global economy – the housebound, say, or those in economically depressed regions or countries. I am struck, when talking to people engaged in what Mr Carney calls “artisanal globalisation”, how often they mention the feeling it gives them of being in control of their own fates.

But that does not mean it can fix all of globalisation’s problems. Indeed, it could make some of them worse. Online labour platforms, in particular, open up all sorts of work to global competition.

Cheaper pitches

A contact once told me of the time his usual translator, who would charge about $360 per job , was off sick. He posted the job on an online platform that invites people to bid for the work. Within minutes, he had a pitch from someone in India for $40 and another from Nigeria for $15.

Upwork, the largest of these online labour platforms, says the US is still its biggest market in terms of freelancer earnings. And those with unique talents will do handsomely in the global marketplace, no matter where they are based. But a lot of work does seem to be flowing to lower-cost countries with skilled workforces: the other countries in Upwork’s top five are India, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine .

Nor is creative work necessarily immune to commodification and price pressure. One freelancer site, SuperTasker, offers customers 400-word blog posts delivered in three hours for a fixed price of $39. When I last checked, a little over a year ago, the price was $45. It operates an “up or out” principle: “taskers” are scored and those who do not move up the ranks are removed from the platform.

The other risk is insecurity. In a world where everyone is trading as an individual or a small company, everyone is very exposed to the changeable tides of global demand.

Some might also slip through the net of local labour market protections that were designed with big companies in mind. A Sri Lankan study of the growing popularity of “virtual employment” found that the educated white-collar workers involved were earning a better wage than most in the country but missing out on Sri Lankan employment rights such as paid maternity leave and limits on working hours.

Carney was right when he said globalisation had not lifted all boats. More people might get afloat as captains of their own artisanal dinghies. But they should prepare for rough seas.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

Sarah O'Connor

Sarah O'Connor is employment columnist at the Financial Times