Internet Geographer

Blog

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers

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.

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% 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.

Source: https://twitter.com/b_cavello/status/839876313473150976

Source: https://twitter.com/b_cavello/status/839876313473150976

Despite these issues, online gig work is growing at a rate of 25% 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% 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.

Mark Graham and Alex Wood

**

This text was originally  published in Red Pepper Magazine.

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 some of our work in a new report or a new paper.

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.