Roughly half of online gig workers across the globe don’t have a retirement plan, a percentage that increases among Venezuelan (73 per cent) and Nigerian (75 per cent) workers, according to a new report by the World Bank Group.

The report, based on surveys across 17 countries, found online gig work is growing globally, particularly in the developing world, creating an important source of employment for women and young people in poorer countries where jobs are scarce.

It estimated the number of global online gig workers at as many as 435 million people and found demand for gig work increased 41 per cent between 2016 and the first quarter of 2023. However, that boost is generating concern among worker rights advocates about the lack of strong job protections in the gig economy, where people work job to job with little security and few employment rights.

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While location-based gig services such as Lyft Inc., TaskRabbit Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. require labour like moving and delivery, online gig assignments can be largely done at home.

For women in the developing world, “there aren’t enough opportunities and they really struggle to get good quality jobs because of constraints and household responsibilities,” says Namita Datta, lead author of the World Bank report. She says online gig work provides women and underprivileged youth “a very interesting opportunity to participate in the labour market.”

Roughly 90 per cent of low-income countries’ workforce is in the informal sector, according to the report. Worker advocates stress the precariousness of gig work and the lack of job security, accountability from management and other social protections to workers’ health and retirement.

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Lindsey Cameron, a management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says “because there are so few options available to workers in these developing nations,” online gigs — with or without social protections — are better than no job options for many workers. “And since workers are economically dependent on this work and they don’t have any sort of basic protections, that’s what is ultimately exploitive. The odds are always in the platform’s favour, never the workers’ favour.”

In the U.S., gig workers, both online and onsite, represent a growing portion of the workforce and there’s ongoing contention about worker rights on these platforms. Transportation and delivery companies such as GrubHub Inc., Lyft and Uber have been entangled in dozens of lawsuits over minimum wage, employment classification and alleged sexual harassment.

“Right now, there are too many jobs where workers are misclassified,” says Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy. “Which means many workers are not guaranteed minimum wage, do not have a social safety net, they don’t get unemployment or workers’ compensation. Now some states have stepped in to mandate paid leave, but if you don’t live in one of those states, you have to play the good boss lottery.”

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