How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers

For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

April 14, 2017
8 min read


Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


Mark GrahamMark Graham is Professor of Internet Geography at the University of Oxford @geoplace

Internet users will make up the majority of the planet’s population before the end of this year. Most of this digital growth is coming from Africa, Asia, and South America: places where incomes are low and well-paying jobs are scarce.

It should come as no surprise then that many of these new internet users are turning to online job platforms to find work in the so-called ‘gig economy.’ Platforms such as Fiverr, Freelancer, and Upwork connect workers to clients irrespective of their geographic locations. For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. According to the World Bank, there are now 48 million online workers in a market that is worth over $5 billion.

This new global market for labour allows workers in low-income countries to find jobs and income that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. Because of this, governments in Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, and elsewhere have launched ambitious programmes to get their citizens to sign up to gig work platforms. Some online gig work platforms likewise suggest that they are bringing about a revolution in labour markets by lifting people out of poverty.

A worker in Kenya knows that if she lobbies for a higher wage, another worker in India or the Philippines can easily take her place. This is a buyer’s market for work.

We have spent the last three years interviewing about 125 online gig workers in Africa and Asia, and doing a survey with hundreds more, and we found that the realities are a bit more complicated.

Although online gig work does indeed bring higher incomes and a sense of freedom for some, it also creates some significant problems.

Most worrying is the massive oversupply of labour on some of the largest gig work platforms. Almost 90 per cent of people who sign up to work never end up finding a job. This oversupply exerts a downward pressure on wages and working conditions. A worker in Kenya knows that if she lobbies for a higher wage, another worker in India or the Philippines can easily take her place. This is a buyer’s market for work.

Online gig work is also inherently insecure. There is rarely any job security, and a worker who falls ill, becomes pregnant, or simply needs a break will lose their income. Because most workers live in countries with little social security, this presents a real risk to the well-being of people who do not thrive in the online gig economy.

Because online workers lack security, and because of the constant threat of competition, many are tempted to work extremely long shifts. Many hours are spent each day searching and bidding for gigs. When this necessary unpaid work is combined with the time taken fulfilling clients’ demands, the total working week can add up to 70 or 80 hours – requiring late night working and other anti-social hours. Unsurprisingly to increase the amount of paid gigs, workers try and complete tasks at intense speeds, so they can move on to next gig or return to searching for more paid-work. Working at high-speeds while sat at computer for long hours can have painful consequences while the reward is just a few dollars an hour.

Despite these issues, online gig work is growing at a rate of 25 per cent a year. Therefore, an increasing number of workers around the world will soon find themselves doing it. As this global market for gig work expands, we need to think of ways to design a system that works not just for those who thrive in it (the most successful workers), and not just for those who benefit most from it (clients and platform owners).

Consumers, regulators, platforms, and workers each have distinct roles to play in creating this fairer world of work.

First, consumers: you, as an internet user, have an important responsibility in this new world of work. In the last few decades, the fair-trade movement has encouraged millions of people to avoid coffee, diamonds, or running shoes that have been produced in unethical ways. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be similarly ethically aware when using a search engine, an AI system, or a social network: all of which are maintained by real-world digital workers. In other words, we need a consumer ‘fair work’ movement.

Second, regulators could do much more to help digital gig workers. Currently, a lot of this sort of work passes entirely underneath the radar of regulation. Taxes are rarely paid, and workers may not feel empowered enough to complain about the non-payment of wages. Uber, for instance, has even designed bespoke technology to enjoin its drivers to evade state regulations. Changing this state of affairs will require governments in countries like India, the Philippines, and South Africa to pay attention to online work and enforce (and ideally adapt) existing labour laws.

But it is also worth remembering that only a handful of countries (the US, India, the UK, Canada, and Australia) outsource the majority of digital work. It is in those places that international standards could potentially be enforced. Imagine if firms in these countries were legally responsible and accountable for ensuring that all workers, no matter where they live, must be treated with certain minimum standards.

Third, because almost all large online work platforms are currently privately owned firms, they rarely have the best interests of workers at heart. They capture large rents – often 20 per cent of wages – by simply providing a platform that allows clients to meet workers. There is no reason that platforms cannot instead be run by and for workers, as cooperatives, in order to allow workers to capture more of the value that they are creating.

Finally, digital workers themselves are not powerless. The dispersed, but digitally-connected, nature of this work makes a lot of workers feel as if they are competitors in a global market. But those same digital networks can also be used locally to foster horizontal collaboration between workers. Workers can share complaints, organise strategies, construct virtual picket lines, and in some cases, collectively withdraw their labour.

Despite the fact that there is a global market for digital work, we show in our research that not all digital gig work being done is truly global. Economic geographers have long pointed to how capitalism creates ‘spatial divisions of labour’: the ways that firms use digital technologies to increase profits by locating and activating low and high skilled parts of production networks in different parts of the world. But these economic geographies can also be used as a site of strength for workers. Concentrations of work and workers in particular places mean that workers no longer need to feel that they are solely atomised individuals in a global market. Instead of competition, potentials for collaboration and mobilisation exist at the local level.

There is no way to turn back the clock and return to a pre-globalised world of work. But we also need not be satisfied with a system that only serves those who thrive in it and offers few protections for the most vulnerable. Let’s use what we know about the networks, geographies, and systems of digital labour to strive for a fairer world of work.

This research is based on a three-year investigation, ‘Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia’. For further reading you can access work by the authors in this new pamphlet and a new paper. The photo at the top of this page is by Ray S via flickr.com


Alex WoodAlex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment @tom_swing


Mark GrahamMark Graham is Professor of Internet Geography at the University of Oxford @geoplace


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