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Internet gigs another cost of Russia war

Workers left in the lurch as online companies exit by The Washington Post | March 13, 2022 at 1:53 a.m.

When Arina, a 22-year-old illustrator in Russia, first started using the freelance work platform Upwork last year, it changed her life.

"It was like opening a door into another world for me," she said, speaking on the condition that her last name not be used out of fear of government repercussions. Upwork connected her with clients in India, the United States, Australia and Germany, allowing her to make 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, American and European tech companies have made a business of facilitating online labor -- from gig work to content creation and online marketplaces to payment processors. Now, tens of thousands of Russian video game streamers on Twitch, gig workers on Upwork, adult-content creators on OnlyFans and computer programmers working on contract have all lost their livelihoods, at least temporarily.

The gig work companies acted in response to demands from lawmakers and public sentiment against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Some cited the restrictions that sanctions had placed on processing payments and depositing funds in Russian banks.

"Russia's unprovoked war against the people of Ukraine has put us in a position in Russia and Belarus which is untenable from a corporate values perspective as well as from an operational perspective," Upwork chief executive Hayden Brown said in a statement.

Twitch told streamers in Russia that it was no longer able to pay them because of sanctions placed 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 sanctions were blocking it from paying workers on its platform.

Many of the 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 after Russia invaded. So did the London-based cross-border payments company Wise and the New York City-based financial services provider Payoneer. On Saturday, PayPal suspended services in Russia, citing both sanctions and solidarity with Ukraine.

"PayPal supports the Ukrainian people and stands with the international community in condemning Russia's violent military aggression in Ukraine," president and CEO Dan Schulman wrote in a message posted on the company's blog.

The gig companies have globalized online labor in the past decade, connecting employers and workers across countries, languages and time zones -- exporting a business model that relied on precarious labor. With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the gig economy's lack of a safety net is playing out in an unexpected way.

A core reason U.S. employers look to gig work platforms is to seek out highly educated but lower-cost workers in countries such as Russia and India, rather than paying for more expensive employees at home.

The impact of recent moves on ordinary Russians reveals the extent to which digital workers around the globe are reliant on U.S. and European-based companies, and the extent of their power, said Veena Dubal, a law professor at University of California Hastings. "At a moment's notice, people just lose their livelihoods," even outside the context of war, she said.

The fact that gig workers are typically classified as contractors rather than employees underscores the fact that "there is no nation-based safety net for these workers anywhere in the world," said Dubal.

Some experts say Western companies need to be proactive about cutting off Russia's economic access because the international community's primary mode of support for Ukrainians has been economic sanctions and other penalties against Russia. Others argue these sweeping moves only hurt everyday workers and strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin's narrative that the West doesn't care about Russian people.

Much of the pressure on tech companies to cut off Russia has come from Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, who has led a campaign on social media and through a network of Ukrainian expatriates to convince Western companies to halt business in Russia to put more pressure on the government.

The gig workers are out of work "just because they are silent when their dictator kills the people of our country," Fedorov wrote last week on his Telegram channel. "This is a courageous decision of 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 lets businesses find workers for small online tasks, said Siddharth Suri, co-author of the 2019 book "Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass."

"Platforms basically have unilateral control over who can do work and what kind of work can be done," said Suri. "That leaves the workers at a sort of power disadvantage."

As their accounts froze and profiles disappeared, online workers in Russia weren't always sure why their income was being blocked or whether they had any recourse. Russian content creators on OnlyFans were able to get their accounts reinstated after protesting on social media, Rolling Stone reported.

After PayPal announced earlier this month that it would suspend services in Russia, users began compiling lists of payment providers that were still serving Russians, noting that these sweeping policy changes also affected workers in Ukraine, and offering links to a Telegram channel and Google spreadsheet that kept track of shifting company policies.

One Russian web developer from the country's North Caucasus region said his employer of two years -- who he was connected with through Upwork -- abruptly cut off their relationship once the company made its announcement. Speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern about government crackdowns on dissent, he blamed Putin for provoking the sanctions. He said he knew at least five other people who have also lost their jobs freelancing for foreign companies.

With few job opportunities for IT workers in his area, he was planning on taking out a loan and leaving the country. "I am forced to leave because it is getting harder and harder to live in Russia," he said. "Today's events have put thousands of people out of work."

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