When Arina, a 22-year-old illustrator from Russia, started using freelance platform Upwork last year, it changed her life.
“It was like opening a door to another world for me,” she said, speaking on the condition that her last name would not be used for fear of government repercussions. Upwork connected her with clients in India, the United States, Australia and Germany, allowing her to earn a living in a field in which she had struggled to find work locally.
But last week, Upwork abruptly pulled out of Russia. For more than a decade, US and European technology companies have worked to make working online easier – from on-demand work to content creation and from online marketplaces to payment processors. Today, tens of thousands of Russian video game streamers on Twitch, gig workers on Upwork, adult content creators on OnlyFans, and computer programmers working under contract have all lost their livelihoods, at least temporarily. .
The gig companies acted in response to demands from lawmakers and public opinion against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some cited the restrictions the sanctions had imposed on processing payments and depositing funds in Russian banks.
“Russia’s unprovoked war against the Ukrainian people has put us in a position in Russia and Belarus that is untenable from a corporate values perspective as well as from an operational perspective,” the director said. Upwork General Hayden Brown in a statement.
Twitch has told streamers in Russia that it is no longer able to pay them due to sanctions imposed on payment services. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) OnlyFans did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement to Rolling Stone magazine, OnlyFans said the penalties prevent it from paying workers on its platform.
Many platforms that allow fans to pay creators and influencers for their content use payment systems such as Mastercard and Visa, which began blocking Russian accounts in the days following Russia’s invasion. So did London-based cross-border payments company Wise and New York-based financial services provider Payoneer. On Saturday, PayPal suspended its services in Russia, citing both sanctions and its solidarity with Ukraine.
“PayPal stands with the people of Ukraine and stands with the international community in condemning Russia’s violent military aggression in Ukraine,” Chairman and CEO Dan Schulman wrote in a post on the company’s blog.
Gig companies have globalized online work over the past decade, connecting employers and workers across countries, languages and time zones, exporting a business model that relied on precarious work. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the lack of a safety net in the gig economy manifests itself in unexpected ways.
One of the main reasons American employers are turning to gig work platforms is to seek out highly-skilled but lower-cost workers in countries like Russia and India, rather than paying more expensive employees at home.
The impact of recent movements on ordinary Russians reveals just how dependent digital workers around the world are on US and European companies, and the extent of their power, said University of California law professor Veena Dubal. at Hastings. “People just lose their livelihoods all the time,” even outside the context of war, she said.
The fact that gig workers are generally classified as contractors rather than employees underscores the fact that “there is no national safety net for these workers anywhere in the world,” Dubal said.
Some experts say Western companies need to be proactive in cutting off Russia’s economic access, because the international community’s main mode of support for Ukrainians has been economic and other sanctions against Russia. Others argue that these sweeping measures only harm ordinary workers and reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric that the West does not care about the Russian people.
Much of the pressure on tech companies to cut off Russia has come from Ukraine’s digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who has campaigned on social media and through a network of Ukrainian expats to convince Western companies to suspend their activities in Russia to put more pressure on the government.
Construction workers are out of work “just because they are silent when their dictator is killing the people of our country,” Fedorov wrote last week on his Telegram channel. “This is a brave move by the Upwork team,” he added, urging other gig work platforms to follow suit.
Upwork has labor forces around the world, including the United States, India and the Philippines, and uses a model pioneered by Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows companies to find workers for small tasks online, a said Siddharth Suri, co-author of the 2019 book “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Creating a New Global Underclass.”
“Platforms basically have one-sided control over who can do the job and what type of job can be done,” Suri said. “That leaves workers at a sort of power disadvantage.”
As their accounts froze and their profiles disappeared, online workers in Russia weren’t always sure why their earnings were blocked or if they had any recourse. Russian content creators on OnlyFans were able to get their accounts back after protesting on social media, Rolling Stone reported.
After PayPal announced earlier this month that it would be suspending its services in Russia, users began compiling lists of payment providers that still served Russians, noting that these sweeping policy changes also affected workers in Ukraine, and offering links to a Telegram channel and a Google spreadsheet that track changes in company policies.
A Russian web developer from the country’s North Caucasus region said his employer of two years – whom he was in contact with through Upwork – abruptly severed their relationship once the company made its announcement. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government crackdowns on dissent, he blamed Putin for instigating the sanctions. He said he knew at least five other people who also lost their jobs freelancing for foreign companies.
With few job opportunities for IT professionals in his area, he planned to take out a loan and leave the country. “I have to leave because it is becoming more and more difficult to live in Russia,” he said. “Today’s events have put thousands of people out of work.