Big companies, universities, NGOs and individuals are increasingly relying on online language service platforms to contract services such as translation, transcription or subtitling.
These platforms are at the same time creating new income opportunities for workers from Asian and African countries, which make up the majority of the online workforce in language services. However, a new Fairwork report by researchers from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and the University of Oxford finds that many freelancers on online translation and transcription platforms are confronted with low wages, insufficient protection from work-related risks and unfair management practices.
In a new study, the Fairwork project has evaluated the working conditions of 9 of the most popular global translation and transcription platforms: Translated, TranscribeMe, Gengo, Lionbridge, Scribie, TransPerfect, GoTranscript, SmartCat and Rev. Clients of these platforms include global businesses such as AirBnB, L’Oreal, Spotify, Netflix, Google, and Facebook as well as prominent universities such as Princeton University, the University of California in Berkeley, the University of Washington, and Yale University. Presenting the findings, the new report ‘Fairwork Translation and Transcription Platforms Ratings 2022: Working Conditions in the Global Platform Economy’ ranks platforms against five principles of fair work, giving each company a score out of ten.
The study finds substantial differences in working conditions across the nine evaluated platforms, which are also reflected in the scores. Two platforms, Translated and TranscribeMe, stood out in this year’s rating with 8 and 7 points respectively. These platforms could evidence that they safeguard basic labour standards with regard to fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts and fair management. Far behind these two companies on top of the ranking, the third position was shared between the translation platforms Gengo and Lionbridge with 2 points each, which could only evidence that they meet basic labour standards in relation to two Fairwork principles. Just one point was awarded the transcription platform Scribie for evidencing basic standards of fair management. Four platforms bottomed the ranking with 0 points, indicating that there was insufficient evidence that these platforms ensure any basic labour standards for workers.
This new round of Fairwork ratings highlights the wide variety of labour standards on online translation and transcription platforms, showing that working conditions, far from being homogeneous, differ significantly between platform companies.
Lead researchers for the study, Tatiana López and Dr. Patrick Feuerstein from the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, comment:
“Increasing demand for online translation and transcription services is creating new income opportunities for freelancers, particularly in Asian and African countries. These workers often lack basic rights and protections and are confronted with precarious working conditions. Our report highlights that precarity is, however, not an inherent feature of platform work but is brought about by platforms’ labour practices. The spread of scores across platforms shows that platforms have the power to promote better working conditions.”
The report also underlines the negative impacts of the competition for jobs between translators and transcriptionists on these global online platforms. The oversupply of workers on these platforms, which was further exacerbated due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the differences in pay rates between lower and higher income countries push overall wages to the bottom. As a result, especially translators and transcriptionists from higher income countries struggle to earn a minimum wage through platform work, as the report shows:
“Out of 231 surveyed transcription workers, around 75% of workers from Asia and Africa, and about 85% of respondents from Latin America reported earning at least the local minimum wage rates. However, only 20% of respondents from Europe and 12% of respondents from North America reported reaching their local minimum wage.”
Fair Pay: Only 4 of the 9 rated platforms, Translated, TranscribeMe, Gengo and Lionbridge, could demonstrate that their workers get paid on time and for all completed work. But only Translated could evidence that the vast majority of translators on the platform are able to earn at least the local hourly minimum wage.
Fair Conditions: 3 out of the 9 rated platforms, Translated, TranscribeMe and Lionbridge, could evidence that they take active measures to balance worker’s supply and demand and/or to manage the process of work allocation to mitigate precarity and overwork. Only Translated and TranscribeMe were able to evidence that they take active measures to protect translators and transcribers from work-related health risks, and especially from mental stress caused by disturbing or explicit content of audio or text files provided by clients.
Fair Contracts: For only 2 out of the 9 evaluated platforms, Translated and TranscribeMe, the study found that clear and comprehensible terms and conditions for workers were available that are consistent with workers’ terms of engagement on the platform.
Fair Management: 4 of the 9 platforms assessed by Fairwork researchers, Translated, TranscribeMe, Gengo and Scribie, have shown to have a formalized process where workers can appeal decisions and that workers receive explanations for all disciplinary actions. In addition, Translated and TranscribeMe have implemented policies to mitigate discrimination of translators and transcribers by platform management or clients.
Fair Representation: None of the studied platforms was able to evidence that workers have access to an independent advocate or workers’ body. Also, Fairwork could not find any evidence of any of the studied platforms engaging in collective dialogue or bargaining with an independent collective body of workers, an elected works council or trade union.
Publishing this study, Fairwork researchers are calling for stronger protections and more robust regulation for online platform workers. Fairwork’s efforts and calls for fairer platform work are supported by over 30 institutions from the academic and political sphere in various countries, which have signed the Fairwork Pledge – a public commitment to support fairer platform work. These institutions include the Good Business Charter and the New Economic Foundation in the UK, the Audencia Business School in France, the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky in the US and the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and the Berlin Senate in Germany.
In light of the findings of the Fairwork Translation and Transcription Platforms Report, Fairwork encourages businesses and universities to use the findings of this study to make informed and socially responsible choices when contracting transcription or translation services via an online platform, and to join in support for decent working conditions in the platform economy by signing the Fairwork Pledge. Professor Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography at Oxford Internet Institute and Director of Fairwork, states in this regard:
“The low Fairwork scores of many popular online translation and transcription platforms clearly demonstrates the need for platforms and regulators to take action to ensure fair working conditions for platform workers. These workers are particularly vulnerable, because they tend to fall through the cracks of national and international regulatory initiatives. Consumers can support positive change towards fairer online platform work by signalling to platforms that they not only care about price but also about labour standards. Therefore, we urge businesses, universities and other organisation that use online transcription or translation platforms to sign up to the pledge today and thereby help our vision of fair work become a reality for all platform workers.”
Calls upon platforms to improve their practices and upon consumers to use the new Fairwork ratings as a resource to make informed and ethical decisions are also seconded by Linda Lapini from Subtle – The Subtitlers’ Association, member association of AudioVisual Translators Europe. She comments:
“The report shows that a lot of work remains to be done to ensure basic labour standards on translation and transcription platforms. How these platforms decide to organise their business practices ultimately shapes the work that they host, affecting the working conditions of translators and transcribers, who have little recourse in the absence of appropriate mechanisms for them to express their voice collectively. The authors have opened up an important dialogue with some platforms and positive changes have been implemented as a result of their engagement. On a wider level, by highlighting good practices, the report provides a benchmark for workers and a clear pathway for platforms to improve their business models. All those wishing to contract transcription or translation services via an online platform will be empowered to make informed decisions that go beyond the bottom line.”