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Introducing a FairWork Foundation
A picture I took at a training programme for digital workers in Nairobi. The workers are being taught how to transcribe an audio file that says: "Nobody had any idea 30 years ago what the world was going to be like now, and how these tools were going to be used."

A picture I took at a training programme for digital workers in Nairobi. The workers are being taught how to transcribe an audio file that says: "Nobody had any idea 30 years ago what the world was going to be like now, and how these tools were going to be used."

When we use a product, a service, or even an algorithm that was brought into being with digital labour, there is no way to know whether an exhausted worker is behind it; whether they get laid off if they become sick or get pregnant; whether they are spending twenty hours a week just searching for work; how precarious their source of income is; or whether they are being paid an unfairly low wage.

I therefore want to propose a way of holding client firms in virtual production networks more accountable through the development of a ‘FairWork Foundation.’ The proposal operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world.

Today, there are 48 million workers globally who are registered on online labour platforms, cumulatively doing work that according to the World Bank consists of 5 billion dollars’ worth of transactions this year . We still know very little about where these workers are, what sorts of work they are doing, and – most importantly – the conditions under which they labour.

However, my research group at the Oxford Internet Institute, and a few others around the world, are starting to chip away at these gaps in knowledge. In my case, we are engaging in two multi-year, multi-continent research projects (geonet.oii.ox.ac.uk and oii.ox.ac.uk/projects/microwork-andvirtual-production-networks) which aim to better understand the benefits and risks that may be associated with digital work (here is an initial report and paper).

From our own research, and the research of others, it is clear that there are ample risks. Many workers have jobs characterized by long and irregular hours, intense work, low income, and tedium. The combination of highly commoditized work, and a global market for this work, means that many digital workers feel that people in other parts of the world will undercut them, and take their jobs if they request better working conditions or higher wages. Work also tends largely to be done outside of the purview of national governments, with very few clients paying attention to rules that are on the books in either their home countries or the worker’s home country. Lacking the ability to collectively gather and withdraw their labour, these workers increasingly need an effective way to improve working conditions.

Because transnational flows of commodities and labour frequently involve long, complex, mediated, and opaque production networks, a range of intermediaries have emerged to critically analyse working and production conditions in upstream nodes on supply chains. Consumer watchdog magazines like Which?, Consumer Reports, and Stiftung Warentest seek to reveal information that sellers of end-products often wish to conceal. Organizations involved in certification schemes (such as Fairtrade and The Rainforest Alliance) attempt to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to, and activist organisations like Sourcemap aim to increase informational transparency in supply chains.

The idea underpinning all of this work has been a belief that information and communication technologies (ICTs) could be used to not just facilitate the easy geographic movement of products and services, but also to facilitate a more transparent geographic flow of information about those products and services. If consumers or buyers have more information about products and production practices, then it becomes less likely that firms would be willing to engage in ethically dubious practices.

While consumers of products from companies like Starbucks and Cadburys have pressured those companies into ensuring that the entire chains of production are certified as Fairtrade, users of Google or Microsoft have no similar way of persuading those firms to behave ethically. Users of Facebook, Google, and other digital services, sites, apps, and algorithms currently have no idea if the workers that help to create and maintain those services are treated fairly or paid living wages. In many cases, users may be unaware that there are actually any human workers at all behind those services. But, the fact that the act of tracing production networks of digital services and products is a challenging task should not deter us from trying.

I have therefore put the below document together as a first step: hoping to outline what may be possible in a 'FairWork Foundation'.

Graham, M. 2017. A FairWork Foundation. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.

If there is interest, any of these ideas can be further expanded upon. It is important to remember that many of the millions of digital workers who are embedded into global virtual production networks currently have little bargaining power. Their ability to collectively bargain is limited, and they are often not protected by existing rules and regulations. As ever more people come online looking for jobs, the prospects for workers collaborating instead of competing look bleak. A FairWork Foundation offers viable strategies to change that by pressuring employers to improve wages and working conditions.

New report: 'The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At the Global Margins'

This report is based on a three-year investigation conducted by researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford and the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) at the University of Pretoria.

Online gig work is becoming increasingly important to workers living in low- and middle-income countries. Our multi-year and multi-method research project shows that online gig work brings about rewards such as potential higher incomes and increased worker autonomy, but also risks such as social isolation, lack of work–life balance, discrimination, and predatory intermediaries. We also note that online gig work platforms mostly operate outside regulatory and normative frameworks that could benefit workers.

This report summarises the ways in which observed risks materialise in the market, highlighting responses from a 456-respondent survey and stories from 152 interviews. The report’s central question is whether online gig work has any development potentials at the world’s economic margins. Its motive is to help platform operators to improve their positive impact, to help workers to take action to improve their situations, and to prompt policy makers and stakeholders interested in online gig work to revisit regulation as it applies to workers, clients, and platforms in their respective countries.

Access the full report here:

Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., Wood, A., Barnard, H., Hjorth, I., and Simon, D. P. 2017. The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At the Global Margins. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute. 

New paper: Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods

As ever more policy-makers, governments and organisations turn to the gig economy and digital labour as an economic development strategy to bring jobs to places that need them, it becomes important to understand better how this might influence the livelihoods of workers. Drawing on a multi-year study with digital workers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-east Asia, this article highlights four key concerns for workers: bargaining power, economic inclusion, intermediated value chains, and upgrading. The article shows that although there are important and tangible benefits for a range of workers, there are also a range of risks and costs that unduly affect the livelihoods of digital workers. Building on those concerns, it then concludes with a reflection on four broad strategies – certification schemes, organising digital workers, regulatory strategies and democratic control of online labour platforms – that could be employed to improve conditions and livelihoods for digital workers.

Download the full piece here: 

Graham, M., Hjorth, I., Lehdonvirta, V. 2017. Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoodsTransfer: European Review of Labour and Researchhttps://doi.org/10.1177/1024258916687250.

Mapping The Global Knowledge Economy

The geography of published and codified knowledge has always had stark core-periphery patterns. Just look at the below map of where academic articles are published from (taken from a new co-authored paper with our Geonet team). 

However, increasing digital connectivity has sparked many hopes for the democratization of information and knowledge production in economically peripheral parts of the world. If you can access the sum of the world's knowledge at the tip of your fingertips, are there any reasons for these sorts of patterns to persist?

Sadly, we find that there are. We examined the geography of coding (through Github) and the geography of Internet domain registrations, and find that contrary to the expectation that digital content is more evenly geographically distributed than academic articles, the global and regional patterns of collaborative coding and domain registrations are more uneven than those of academic articles. While connectivity is an important enabler of digital content creation, it seems to be only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition; wealth, innovation capacity, and public spending on education are also important factors.

You can access a full discussion of our results in our new article below: 

Ojanperä, S., Graham, M., Straumann, R. K., De Sabbata, S., & Zook, M. (2017). Engagement in the knowledge economy: Regional patterns of content creation with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Information Technologies & International Development, 13, 33–51.