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Digital Economies at Global Margins
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I am happy to announce that my new edited book 'Digital Economies at Global Margins' is now out!

It was a pleasure working with so many brilliant thinkers and scholars who produced the critical and cutting-edge research you’ll find in the book. A huge thanks to all of the authors who contributed.

Below you can find a brief summary. To see the table of contents, head over the the IDRC or MIT websites where you can also download it for free or buy the paper version.

Digital Economies at Global Margins
Over the last five years, more than one billion people became new Internet users. Once, digital connectivity was confined to economically prosperous parts of the world; now Internet users make up a majority of the world’s population. In this book, contributors from a range of disciplines and locations investigate the impact of increased digital connectivity on people and places at the world’s economic margins. Does the advent of a digitalized economy mean that those in economic peripheries can transcend spatial, organizational, social, and political constraints—or do digital tools and techniques tend to reinforce existing inequalities?

The contributors present a diverse set of case studies, reporting on digitalization in countries ranging from Chile to Kenya to the Philippines, and develop a broad range of theoretical positions. They consider, among other things, data-driven disintermediation, women’s economic empowerment and gendered power relations, digital humanitarianism and philanthropic capitalism, the spread of innovation hubs, hackathons, the gig economy, and a rethinking of how a more progressive politics of connectivity could look.

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

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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.

Shaping the new world of work

The European Trade Union Institute has just put together a 40-page report that comes out of their conference on 'Shaping the new world of work. The impacts of digitalisation and robotisation', held from 27-29 June 2016 in Brussels.

I spoke in the Plenary on 'technology', and spoke about both fears for digital workers, and potential ways of building worker power and collective action. 

Download a copy of the report: 'Shaping the new world of work'.

 

Work with me at the Oxford Internet Institute: we’re hiring a Data Scientist / Data Hacker

Data Scientist/Data Hacker

Oxford Internet Institute, 1 St Giles, Oxford

Grade 7: £31,076 – £38,183 p.a.

The Oxford Internet Institute is a leading centre for research into individual, collective and institutional behaviour on the Internet. We seek a full-time Data Scientist to work with Professor Mark Graham on two projects: (1) the University of Oxford funded incubator on ‘big data and human development’, which seeks to understand how we can address key issues in development with computational approaches; (2) the European Research Council funded Geonet project which seeks to map and measure the geographies of the internet.

In this exciting role, the researcher will work with small teams from around the university on short development-related projects. They will be in charge of collecting data via APIs, web scraping, and collaborations with platform owners, apply standard statistical analyses as well as bespoke computational analyses to address questions of economic, social, and policy relevance, and produce eye-catching visualisations of the results. They will also contribute to the dissemination of the findings through academic publications, reports, presentations, and social media.

The position is suited to candidates who have recently completed a postgraduate degree in computer science, GIS, economics, quantitative geography or sociology or other relevant discipline. Good programming skills and an interest in economic development are required.

Based at the Oxford Internet Institute, this position is available immediately for 12 months, in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal thereafter, funding permitting.

To apply for this role and for further details, including a job description, please click on the link below.

https://www.recruit.ox.ac.uk/pls/hrisliverecruit/erq_jobspec_details_form.jobspec?p_id=126297

Only applications received before 12.00 midday on Monday 12 December 2016 can be considered. Interviews for those short-listed are currently planned to take place on week commencing 16 January 2017.

Cross-posted from Geonet: Investigating the Changing Connectivities and Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa's Knowledge Economy