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Why the digital gig economy needs co-ops and unions

We live in a world in which it is increasingly possible to use online labour markets to outsource work directly to any corner of the planet. Millions of new jobs are thus available for workers in some of the poorest parts of the planet. But the fact that we now have millions of people around the world all competing for the same jobs threatens to undermine a range of working standards.

This situation in which we find ourselves is largely possible because of the rapid spread of the internet to relatively low-income populations. Ten years ago, less than 20% of the world’s population was connected to the internet; and next year we’ll probably have more connected people in the world than disconnected ones. Many of these new internet users live in parts of the world in which well-paying jobs (or indeed any kinds of paying jobs) are hard to come by.

So it makes sense that so many people turn to online work marketplaces do to tasks like virtual assistance, translations, transcriptions, computer programming, graphic design, writing, and other such intellectual and digital forms of work. This system is often organised as a cut-throat bidding process: clients lists jobs on those marketplaces, and workers then try to outbid each other for contacts by offering a lower price or better service.

What it notable about this labour system is that it potentially cuts out a lot of intermediaries, or ‘middle-men’, in chains of work. Think, for instance, of a small business in Manchester that needs a document translated. This could have once been done by outsourcing that task to a local firm, who would outsource to a large business process outsourcing firm, who, in turn, would outsource it to a smaller firm based in Manila, who would then employ a translator to do the work. Now this task can simply be done by connecting the buyer in Manchester with the worker in Manila through an online marketplace.

In theory, this can yield benefits for both the buyer and seller of work, as far less profit needs to now be captured by a chain of intermediaries. But, in many instances, what actually happens is that new intermediaries arise in these digital marketplaces: taking relatively high rates from clients and paying relatively low wages to workers.

This seems to happen for two main reasons. The first is that in traditional workplaces, workers are grouped together under one roof, making it straightforward for the employer to observe the work. However, when work is organised instead through digital platforms, the employer and worker enter into a non-proximate relationship, making monitoring and control difficult.

Ranking and reputation scores, therefore, play a massive role in ensuring quality. If you have a good feedback score as a worker, you’ll get a lot of work. Conversely, if you have not yet managed to amass positive feedback, it becomes extremely challenging to find work. There are a lot of workers on platforms like Upwork.com and Freelancer.com who spend years trying to get their first job. Such workers will accept extremely low paying jobs and sometimes undertake speculative and free labour for the promise of a high rating. What then happens at the same time is that some of the people who do have good scores bid for jobs and then re-assign them to workers with lower scores (usually for a much lower wage).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, online work platforms – by design – treat labour as a commodity to be bought and sold. Work is often packaged up into bite-sized tasks, and workers are treated as replaceable. If labour is a commodity to be easily bought and sold, then the very existence of millions of people in online marketplaces who are desperate for work and are willing to work for low wages will create intermediaries. It is irrational to do tasks yourself as a worker who has a decent score when you could outsource them for a fraction of the cost you would receive to deliver them.

This means that practices like paying minimum wages and living wages become less meaningful – when tasks can be commoditized and outsourced. The very existence of a broad base of people willing to work for subsistence-level wages can exert a gravitational downwards pull on any work towards them in a supply chain.

As millions more potential digital workers join the global network every year, how then should we avoid a situation in which an oversupply of labour can result in an unfairly low market price for work?

We’ll probably need to begin by reframing the very work that goes on in these platforms. If work is a commodity to be bought and sold, and workers are all individual entrepreneurs, it is rational to use these platforms to exploit co-workers. Many workers have internalized these sorts of internalised visions of individuality, competition and predatory behavior. But if people see themselves as workers rather than entrepreneurs, then we have more possibilities for workers to collaborate, cooperate, and organise in an attempt to secure better working conditions for all involved in this disparate digital workforce.

There is a range of ways in which this could be done. One place we could learn from is agricultural production networks. For instance, as the poverty of workers began to impact yields and the supply and availability of coffee, the creation of cooperatives and other benevolent intermediaries was actually encouraged by multinational buyers.

We could therefore envision more digital platform cooperatives that would ensure that workers all have a stake in the platforms that mediate their work and receive fair compensation for their time. Trebor Scholz and others have been working tirelessly to bring this vision into being for platform workers. The idea has even been adopted by Jeremy Corbyn as part of his ‘Digital Democracy Manifesto.’

However, while platform cooperatives will undoubtedly be beneficial for the workers who are enrolled into them, they do not inherently solve the problems introduced by a low market price for work. Stopping a cooperative worker being paid a fair wage from re-outsourcing that work to other workers for much lower wages could prove hard to police.

Others might look to digital unions or looser forms of networks as ways to build a sense of solidarity between digital workers. One explicit role for a digital workers’ union could be building a class consciousness amongst workers, even those at opposite ends of the globe. Such work would need to highlight the precariousness of much of the digital work that is out there. In this effort, it’s worth turning to Gina Neff’s work on this so-called ‘venture labour’, who pinpoints that this notable absence of class consciousness is characterised by “explicit expression of entrepreneurial values by non-entrepreneurs". This cannot be allowed to become the norm. Organising efforts should instead use those very digital forms of communication to highlight the fact that workers are receiving all of the risks of entrepreneurship, but few of the rewards.

These strategies for cooperative forms of organising do not guarantee to resolve the problems of the global digital workforce. But they present a promising starting point; an alternative vision for what digital labour should look like. As thousands of people join the internet every day, many of whom are hungrily looking for work, we need to creatively think about how best to use digital tools for collaboration amongst workers instead of competition between them. Our digital tools are new, the forms of work that they mediate are new, and many of the challenges they raise are new. But, in a world where the atomization of work continues to be used against digital workers, let’s not forget an old rallying cry that has served us well: workers of the world, unite!

(this article was originally posted at OpenDemocracy)

Organising in the digital wild west: Can strategic bottlenecks help prevent a race to the bottom for online workers?


For decades, large firms have been outsourcing and offshoring jobs. Work flowed from from developed economies to developing ones, where wages were lower and regulations were of a lighter touch. Europeans and North Americans lost jobs, and Asians, South Americans, and Africans gained them.

But the nature of these processes meant that business activities had to be on a certain scale to be outsourced. You could outsource a contract for workers to staff a call-desk that expected thousands of incoming calls a day, but you couldn’t easily just get a small website built or a single recording transcribed.

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, and work essentially becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold in hourly increments.

Some of my colleagues and I have spent the last few years studying this phenomena. We’ve analysed months worth of transaction data from the world’s largest online work marketplace, and interviewed about 150 digital workers in Asia and Africa.

One of the most noteworthy findings in this research is that workers often underbid each other on online platforms: driving down the costs to employers and the wages received by workers. This happens, in part, because there seems to be an imbalance between the supply and demand of work.

Platforms force workers to look at each other’s bids: heightening a sense of competition. Many workers had stories about the invisible ‘other’ - a worker on the other side of the world who could easily take their place if they aren’t competitive.

A Nigerian worker, for instance, told us:

“Most people, most Filipinos, they work for 50 cents. It’s so embarrassing. You’re a professional. You know how to do this job…It’s really affecting those ones that know how to do the job”.

Whilst Filipinos told us similar stories about workers elsewhere. But the net result is the same: a downwards pressure on wages.

What should be done?

In April, I spoke about these issues at a workshop on digitalisation that was put together by the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels, and the most interesting question that emerged from the resultant discussion was ‘what should be done’? What sort of response could be had by European workers, politicians, and trade unions?

One option is to do nothing. We could accept that if a Rwandan worker does a contract for a British client, then the service is accepted and performed in Rwanda - and thus governed by the labour laws and standards that operate in that country. But to whose benefit is it to allow work to be so easily bought and sold across borders? Employers or workers?

Another option would be to reconsider the very geography of work. We could rethink where the service is actually provided in the case above? Perhaps the case could be made that the service delivered by the Rwandan worker to the British client was carried out in the UK. Perhaps we could at least envision ways to apply minimum UK labour standards (e.g. working time, discrimination law, health and safety, pregnancy and maternity protection etc.) to all contracts issued by UK employers. A UK employer can’t simply treat a UK worker like a disposable commodity, so why should they be able to do so with a Rwandan-based worker?

This sort of strategy becomes more realistic when we realise that although the supply of work in digital labour markets is truly globalised, the demand for it isn’t. Only a few countries in Western Europe and North America are home to the majority of employers. This fact presents us with strategic bottlenecks at which minimum standards can be enforced.

There is no question that this would not be an easy task to undertake, and people who disagree with this vision might point to the fact that much digital work is divided up atomised micro-tasks. Think of jobs that require a worker to write a letter, or fill out a form. It is true that trying to think about what maternity protection means in that sort of context makes little sense. But, it is also true that many digital workers end up working for months or even years for the same employer: and it is for those workers that we need better protections.

Furthermore, we already have laws that govern how to ensure that fair rates are paid. If we can already figure out how workers who are paid on a “per item” basis can earn at least a minimum wage, then surely we can do the same for a digital worker writing blog content.

Other doubters might also point to the absurdity of paying a Rwandan worker a UK minimum wage. Again, this is a valid concern; but does not necessarily mean that we need no standards at all. Couldn’t we, for instance, envision a law that requires employers to pay workers a living wage in whatever country they are resident in?

Finally, the handful of countries home to the most demand for digital work aren’t the only bottlenecks that we can think about as being strategically useful. The platforms themselves are a bottleneck of sorts. All of the big ones are based in the US, Australia, UK or Israel. In the same way that gang masters and temporary agencies are regulated to ensure that their workers are paid minimum wages and given appropriate protections, digital work platforms should also be expected to do the same.

None of this is to say that there is a simple silver bullet to improve working conditions, and it is all too easy to get into a situation in which we pit the interests of workers in some places over those in others. Look, for instance, at the conflict between Western and Central European workers introduced by implementing the EU Posted Workers Directive.

But it is worth remembering that there are now about 3.5 billion people on the internet: most of whom live in low-wage economies, and many of whom are now able to compete for digital jobs. At the moment, the millions of workers who do digital work do so in a largely unregulated way. And while this may benefit those workers who are able to underbid others at the moment, the status quo points to a race to the bottom for the world’s workers: especially as tens of millions of new internet users join the global network every year.

We can never go back to our pre-globalised world of work, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be satisfied with a digital wild west in which atomised workers are left to fend for themselves.  As transnational digitally-exchanged work becomes ever more common, we can change our expectations. And can use what we know about the economic geographies of digital work to envision and hopefully strive towards alternate futures.

Instead of imagining digital work as being undertaken in digital spaces, beyond the realm of regulation, let’s remember it all happens somewhere. Digital work always has a geography.