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.