Press release

Most freelancers on translation and transcription platforms face poor working conditions

New Fairwork report by Oxford University and WZB Berlin Social Science Center

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. The report 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.

  • Translated: 8/10
  • TranscibeMe: 7/10
  • Gengo: 2/10
  • Lionbridge: 2/10
  • Scribie: 1/10
  • GoTranscript: 0/10
  • Rev: 0/10
  • SmartCat: 0/10
  • TransPerfect: 0/10

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.

Key findings of the report:

  • 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.

“Our report highlights that precarity is, however, not an inherent feature of platform work but is brought about by platforms’ labour practices”, says WZB researcher Tatiana López. “The spread of scores across platforms shows that platforms have the power to promote better working conditions”, comments Dr. Patrick Feuerstein, together with Tatiana López a lead researcher for the study.  

About the study

The findings are based on a survey with 401 translators and transcriptionists from 88 countries which was conducted between February and July 2022. Findings from the survey were complimented with data from desk research, and qualitative interviews with platform workers and managements. The study forms part of Fairwork’s broader research activities on working conditions on ‘cloudwork’ platforms.

About Fairwork

Fairwork is a global research project coordinated by the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre and the Oxford Internet Institute. Through a global network of researchers, Fairwork evaluates working conditions on digital platforms and ranks them based on five principles of fair work. Globally, Fairwork collaborates closely with workers, platforms, advocates, and policymakers to envision and build a fairer future of work.

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