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The Future of Work in the Global South
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A network that I am part of - the The Future of Work in Developing Countries initiative - has just put out a new publication titled 'The Future of Work in the Global South'.

You can download the full publication here. It also contains a piece by my colleagues and I on the potentials of the gig economy in developing countries.

Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, L., Wood., A., Barnard, H., and Hjorth, I. 2018. Could Online Gig Work Drive Development in Lower-income Countries? In Galperin, H., and Alarcon, A. The Future of Work in the Global South. Ottawa: IDRC. 8-11.

I include the introduction below:

More than a billion people are set to enter the job market in less than three years, mostly from low- and lower-middle-income countries. Online gig work—paid work managed via online platforms with no contract for long-term employment—has been seen by economic development experts as a relatively welcome phenomenon, allowing these workers to compete frictionlessly in a global marketplace. Policymakers hope regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia can capitalize on this digitally mediated work opportunity, thereby addressing a global mismatch in supply and demand of (online) labor. In the face of low wages in emerging economies and youth-to-adult unemployment rates hitting historic peaks, Internet-based marketplaces might permit a “virtual migration” offering economic benefits akin to physical migration, lifting people out of poverty, raising labor force participation, and improving productivity.

But are these hopes really justified? Drawing on 152 interviews, a survey of 456 workers, and transaction data from one of the world’s largest online gig work platforms, we discuss some of the risks and rewards of this “new world of work”. There will be benefits like increased pay and autonomy for many, but concerns include downward pressure on pay generally, long hours, discrimination, lack of social contact for some, and the disembedding of gig-platforms from the norms and laws that normally regulate labor intermediaries. By drawing attention to these issues, we hope to help platform operators improve their positive impact, help workers take
action to improve their situations, and prompt policy makers to revisit regulation as it applies to workers, clients, and platforms.

Related work

Graham, M. and Anwar, M.A. 2018. Digital Labour In: Digital Geographies Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A. (eds.). Sage. London.

Graham, M. and Woodcock, J. 2018. Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation. Alternate Routes. 29. 242-253.

Graham, M and Shaw, J. (eds). 2017. Towards a Fairer Gig Economy. London: Meatspace Press.

Graham, M., Hjorth, I., Lehdonvirta, V. 2017. Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research. 23 (2) 135-162.

Birth of ENDL, the European Network on Digital Labour

From all over Europe, researchers in the emergent field of digital labour assembled in Paris for the launch event of ENDL, the European Network on Digital Labour.

Eighteen sociologists, economists, geographers, media scholars were in the French capital to participate in the European Network on Digital Labour kickoff workshop (ENDL-1). Convened by the SES Department of Telecom ParisTech (unit of the Interdisciplinary institute for innovation i3), the meeting took place at the Maison Internationale on Februrary 21, 2017.

 

ENDL-1 participants

Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

  • Sociologist, currently at LSE, London.
  • Ethnography research on practices of resistance.
  • Published a book on work in call centers, and is currently researching workers’ activism at Deliveroo and Twitch.

Camille Alloing (@CaddeReputation)

Kylie Jarrett (@kylzjarrett)

Marie-Anne Dujarier

Sébastien Broca

Gina Neff (@ginasue)

Ursula Huws (@COSTIS1202)

Patricia Vendramin

Yann Moulier-Boutang (@boutangyann)

Nikos Smyrnaios (@smykos)

Sarah Abdelnour

Jen Schradie (@schradie)

Antonio Casilli (@AntonioCasilli)

Mark Graham (@geoplace)

  • Economic geographer, at the Oxford Internet Institute.
  • Studies the gig economy in the Global South.
  • Writes about global networks of solidarity, competition and collaboration between workers.

Paola Tubaro (@ptubaro)

Karen Gregory (@claudiakincaid)

  • Sociologist at the University of Edinburgh, where she teaches and researches digital sociology.
  • Studies emotional labor and entrepreneurialism.
  • Research on forms of solidarity in the ‘sharing economy’.

Remote ENDL-1 participants

Tiziana Terranova (@synthesiastica)

Carlo Vercellone

 

ENDL is an academic network to share ideas and awareness of a range of different theoretical, epistemological and empirical approaches to the topic of work, employment, and conflict in the digital economy. Participants operate collectively to give more visibility to the field of digital labour: meetings, conferences, projects, joint publications.

ENDL also aims at provide theoretical clarifications as to the multiple definitions and nuances of the notions of “digital labour”, “virtual work”, “consumer work”, “affective labour”, “free labour” etc. A number of concrete resources have been implemented as a result of the workshop. A repository of literature and references (through a Zotero working group), a shared document to develop a glossary of relevant terms (on Framapad), and a mindmap of areas of research in the field. Participants are invited to contribute in the weeks to come, and to diffuse the results to their colleagues and students.

The Maison Internationale in Paris, venue of the 1st ENDL workshop (Feb. 21, 2017)

The Maison Internationale in Paris, venue of the 1st ENDL workshop (Feb. 21, 2017)

Participants of the 1st ENDL workshop (Feb. 21, 2017)

Participants of the 1st ENDL workshop (Feb. 21, 2017)

The network is open to academics and non-academics interested in helping advance the ENDL research agenda. Participants to this first workshop form a core of researchers actively working to recruit more participants and to consolidate the field. In this perspective, some activities will be undertaken jointly. Members will also work to develop smaller-scale initiatives at local level.

Local events are already scheduled: a London Digital Labour meetup (March 30, 2017), and two Paris conferences in April featuring invited speakers Sarah T. Roberts (UCLA) and Mary L. Gray (Microsoft research) (more information to come soon). Further meetings will be held in future, to share research ideas and results, and to discuss further actions. An ENDL-2 workshop is planned in autumn 2017 at the University of Edinburgh (to be confirmed).

A Twitter account (@ENDL_Official) is in place. A mailing list has also being created to share upcoming event inormation and discuss future directions. The mailing list welcomes academics and members of the general public interested in work, digital platforms, media, and related topics.

Let’s make platform capitalism more accountable

What do Google, Uber, and Facebook have in common? You might think that the answer is that they are all technology companies. But actually it is that they all pretend to be technology companies. This shared lie amongst platform companies is both bad for workers and bad for users of those platforms.

This is the central argument of a new piece that I have out in New Internationalist. Read the full piece below:

Graham, M. 2016. Let’s make platform capitalism more accountableNew Internationalist. Dec 13, 2016

Digital work marketplaces impose a new balance of power

Factories can’t run, farms can’t produce, mines can’t be mined, supermarkets can’t be stocked, and call centres can’t accept calls if workers don’t go to work. Even though the decks are often stacked against workers, the basic fact that workers can withdraw their labour with strikes, and encourage others to do so with picket lines, has done much to improve working conditions in a range of industries around the world.

But in a world of globalized, digitized, and atomized work, we now have a fundamentally different balance of power.

Traditionally, a core weakness of capital in its struggle with labour was its need to be spatially fixed. Employers needed geographical sites in which workers did their work. This is not to say that capital wasn’t inherently much more mobile than labour. But, although jobs could be outsourced and offshored, those new sites of production were often vulnerable to a withdrawal of labour power.

Recognizing that as a group they could wield significant bargaining power, many workers formed trade unions. Unions could engage in collective bargaining with employers to demand a greater share of returns generated by the work done by workers. Collective bargaining also enabled workers to regulate how they were treated in the workplace. For example, grievance and disciplinary procedures were developed to protect workers from managerial despotism. Because of the ever-present threat of a withdrawal of labour power, this collective bargaining tended to be far more effective for workers than individualized bargaining done by atomized workers. Unions have been shown to significantly increase the wages and conditions for workers.

This is now all changing due to the advent of digital work marketplaces. Platforms like Upwork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com mediate the auctioning of work. Clients post tasks and workers bid on them. With some colleagues, I have spent the last few years studying this phenomenon: interviewing about 120 digital workers in Africa and Asia who do jobs as varied as programming, content creation, transcriptions and clickwork. We asked each one of them how comfortable they felt asking for a raise or for better working conditions, and whether they had considered joining a union.

What we heard back from many of them was that they felt extremely replaceable. The nature of much digital work means that workers from all over the world are thrust into the same marketplace and are forced to compete against each other on very short-term contracts: some lasting only a few hours. Digital workers in Kenya know that if they withdraw their labour, then workers in the Philippines can easily take their jobs. And Filipino workers likewise know that Indian workers can do their jobs if they were to refuse to work. Every worker on these digital platforms knows that there are many more out there to take his or her place.

Does this mean that digital work represents a move to a fundamentally post-union world? A world in which work is fundamentally characterized by competition rather than solidarity between workers? If we want to avoid a world in which competition between workers leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, then I would argue that there are three key strategies that we should be thinking about to redress the current structural imbalance of power.

Networks instead of hierarchies

First, we need to strengthen efforts to build collective identities amongst digital workers. Many workers do not see the utility of unions, and many workers do not even see themselves as workers! Here there is a space for more groups like the so-called ‘Freelancers Union’.

It is important to point out that while that organization actually promotes precarious freelancing (their website features articles like ‘Top 10 signs you were destined to be a freelancer’), its efforts could nonetheless be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers. Many workers also digitally assemble on Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, and other digital points of assembly to chat, complain, share opportunities, and exchange knowledge. As my colleague Alex Wood has demonstrated, these networks can be the launchpad for successful activism to counter workplace injustice. Thus, in areas where hierarchical unions or collectives make little sense, we can instead look to networks.

Digital-era strategies

However, although these efforts could be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers, they might not alone tip the balance of power in their favour. A second strategy could therefore be to focus on effective trade union strategies that are properly brought into the digital age.

Some might argue that in a world of precarious short-term contracts, with workers all over the world competing against each other, it is impossible to emulate traditional strategies that made trade unions effective. But even though digital markets are not really fixed to a single geographic space, it might be strategically useful for digital workers to think of them that way.

In the same way that a physical picket line disrupts business as usual, a digital picket line might be used to similar effect. This is usually most effective when targeting the most consumer-facing firms in any value chains, which in turn involves understanding the virtual production networks of digital work. We hold Apple responsible for poor working conditions in Chinese Foxconn factories and we hold Nike responsible if any of their shoes are sourced in sweatshops, so let’s use investigative journalism and radical transparency approaches to equally hold the Googles and Facebooks of the world to account for poor conditions in the ways that they source work.

In practice, that would entail using a tactical media approach to take control of the visibility of corporate controlled narratives. This means making sure that problematic workplace practices are outlined on Twitter and Instagram hashtags; on comments on Facebook pages; and on search-engine results pages by using ‘Google-bombing’.

Consumer-led activism

But while these sorts of strategies remove the ability of companies to escape responsibility for any problematic production practices, they can do little to stop workers undercutting each other in digital work marketplaces. So, in tandem with digital picket lines, we need more consumer-led activism to support workers.

Consumer boycotts of companies engaging in the worst sorts of abuses often persuade companies to rethink how they source products and services. But what we probably also need are organizations committed to measuring and certifying fairness in production networks.

In much the same way that the Fairtrade Foundation inspects and audits sites of production of products like coffee and chocolate, couldn’t we envision a Fairwork Foundation that ensures that employers of digital workers adhere to certain social and economic standards? Doing so would allow end-users of services to express unity with workers by choosing services, platforms, apps and websites that have been certified.

Many have proclaimed that unions make little sense in our era of hyper-globalized digital work. And online work platforms are certainly designed to foster a sense of competition rather than solidarity between workers. Although this presents a somewhat bleak outlook for digital workers, there remain some strategies that can be employed to further the interests of worker collectives.

As ever more of the world’s population connects to the internet and looks for jobs, there is the potential for ever more downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Yet it is rarely in workers’ interests to compete against each other, so let’s find ways of collaborating, joining forces and building alliances.

We can do that by recognizing that employers and firms, despite being geographically separated from workers, still have digital ‘locations’ that can be challenged and disrupted. And we can do that by recognizing that even though we are now in an entangled, hyper-mobile digital age, the basic fact remains that everything around us - the apps, the data, the algorithms, the content - is ultimately produced by workers: workers who will receive support from users and consumers if only we could better understand how our actions reverberate through global production networks of digital work. There remains much we can do as we seek to bring a fairer world of work into being.