Freelancer.com - like similar sites such as TaskRabbit, Fiverr and Upwork - is a platform that connects freelancers with outsourced pieces of work. On the surface, this may be unremarkable - just another symptom of the burgeoning gig economy and our shifting attitudes towards work. But a closer look reveals something far more incisive about the regulation of work, globalisation and capitalism.

"We connect almost 29 million people around the world, who have an idea and want to get someone to help them turn that dream into reality, whether it's design for your website or a logo, design a product, or do some research. Really, any job you can think of," says Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com.

freelancer

According to Barrie, more than 14 million jobs have been posted since the website's inception. These jobs range from manual labour to computer programming, posted by DIY-challenged homeowners up to - wait for it - NASA. Yes, really. This begs the question, why would a globally esteemed space agency turn to an freelancing platform for workers?

"The old way of doing things for a government organisation like NASA would be to write a full, typed job description or a contract job description of say six or twelve months, offer several hundred thousand dollars for that job, post it internally within the organisation, then post it externally for people to apply... and it's a very slow and expensive and time-consuming process," says Barrie. 

"With Freelancer, they went on, they put it on the system, they put a contest for a handrail for $50. They posted the contest, and in 24 hours, they had 47 intrigues, and then ultimately, had seen 100 intrigues. And literally within 24 hours, they had very, very high quality 3D models of this handrail. And it's unbeatable in terms of how easy it was to do - the quality is great and the cost is very low."

While this approach may have provided an opportunity for someone who wouldn't generally be able to compete for a job with NASA, this boon for democracy is offset by a number of other factors. Because for many, it would be appear NASA was simply attempting to save money by dodging official channels - and the corporate responsibility ingrained in them - and instead tossing $50 to the first taker on the internet.

At the first dawn of the gig economy, it was hailed as the future of work - where we can pick and choose jobs freely, investing as much time as we want into whatever we want. This was a narrative shaped by future-watchers and commentators enamoured with the idea of newly flexible work schedules. It's the take that Barrie (predictably) wholeheartedly endorses.

"You can really set your own pay rate, you can really decide what you want to do. So it's really around creating a job, rather than taking a job in many ways because you've got to really figure out what you want to do, rather than take whatever jobs are available," he says. 

But while some successful freelancers may pick up or reject jobs at whim, and earn ample remuneration, there are millions who didn't choose this life, but can't access the security of permanent roles and the benefits - sick pay, holiday pay, maternity leave, healthcare insurance in the US - that they bring.

These are people stuck on zero hours contracts, accepting any work they can to make ends meet. Because it's true that in the gig economy, wages are often below the national minimum. In fact, one could argue that these sites promote chronic devaluing of both work and worker health.

As a student, I joined a different freelancer site in the hopes of earning some money on the side. However, I was shocked by the low rates of pay offered. Similarly, on Freelancer.com, a first glance at the landing page reveals jobs advertised for as low as $3 to $4 per hour - far below the UK's national minimum wage.  

Freelancers on sites such as Freelancer.com are able to set their own rates, dependent on their experience and value they place on their ability. This supposedly lets workers have agency over the work they choose to do, and turn down work they feel would be underpaid. But the fact that workers 'bid' for jobs - competing against each other on cost - coupled with the fact that the company enforces no minimum threshold, this inevitably shifts the scale downwards. And there is undoubtedly an inverse relationship between desperation to work and the rate of pay accepted.

On these matters, Barrie is evasive, eager to point out that his platform is dissimilar to companies such as Uber and Deliveroo, which have been under fire in recent years for their insistence that their employees are actually self-employed contractors.

"Number one, is that you set your own pay rates," Barrie says. "So with Freelancer, it's a little bit different than Deliveroo or Uber, where Uber or Deliveroo will set what your pay is. With Freelancer, you really put your own number in."

But this phenomenon has earned these types of platform flak from worker's bodies. Trade union organisation, Unions NSW, representing 600,000 workers in Barrie's home country Australia's state of New South Wales, labelled a rival platform, Airtasker, a "superhighway to serfdom", and says on its site that the platform "flagrantly disregards the minimum wage and other labour standards by encouraging workers to compete and underbid each other for bite-sized pieces of work".

But there is another reason some of these jobs command such low remuneration.

"The main markets are basically the US, UK, Canada, and Australia for posting jobs, and then in terms of doing jobs, that's really emerging markets for all countries," says Barrie. Meaning that these sites offer a great deal for Western employers who can offer jobs at rates far below the acceptable minimum in their home countries, possibly an adequate deal for workers in emerging markets who are accustomed to lower wages, but not so great for the freelancers or otherwise work-seeking individuals in countries with a higher standard of living and expected pay.

Barrie freely acknowledges this phenomenon. "The jobs where people need to be cautious of, where it is highly competitive and the pay rates are stagnating or dropping, are jobs where you enter a market where the skills required are relatively low and a global workforce can compete directly with you," he says. "So a classic example of that would be something like data entry. Really, you've got the whole workforces of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines all coming online. They all speak English. They have access to computers."

"The challenge is that we are entering a hyper-connected world. That world is certainly becoming more competitive because these pools of liquidity, in terms of labour, are connecting up. And so, you really want to make sure that you're continually reinventing yourself and educating yourself in good expertise in certain areas because, I guess, as Tom Friedman says, 'The days of being average are over'."

Computer science is one area Barrie references as being high in demand, and it's true that these jobs seem to command higher offers on the site, although this may still be lower than rates within a permanent role, with the average London-based computer scientist commanding a salary of £66,296 in London. 

Although Barrie suggests that his company is not culpable in the same way as Deliveroo, given he is not personally employing these workers, it does pose the question of who should be responsible for enforcing these workers' rights.

The legal challenges prompted by these types of platform are "an enormously grey area," says Ursula Huws, a professor of labour and globalisation at Hertfordshire Business School. "And that makes it impossible to legislate for, until we have a definition of an online platform. One of the things we could do is make the onus on [the platform] to prove that they are not employment agencies, which would bring them into the scope of regulations."

Huws says it is important to recognise that "the employment law we have, and the social security system in the UK, is not fit for purpose in the 21st century and that it needs to be redesigned." 

Right now, these sites act as a microcosm of the forces of globalisation, where an erosion of workers' rights washes through jobs markets across the world. It's unfettered capitalism, driven by the power of the market, supply and demand - and a race to the bottom. Where the worker must adapt or die, and the employer is unburdened with any responsibility for employee welfare. It's an example of technology moving faster than legislation can keep up with, and prompts the question of whether this can be rectified before a new global standard of work is set.