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Posts tagged virtual labour
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)

Mapping a Freelance Working Week

Wired has just published some of the work on the geography of freelance work that I’ve been doing with my colleague Stefano De Sabbata. We’ve posted a longer description and discussion on our Information Geographies website

This work also closely ties into two new projects that we’re starting at the OII this year:

GeoNet: Internet Geographies: Changing Connectivities and the Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Knowledge Economy

and

Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia
two new researcher positions at the Oxford Internet Institute

I’m happy to announce two new researcher posts that have been made available at the Oxford Internet Institute. Both positions link into our larger ERC and IDRC funded research into knowledge economies and virtual labour in Sub-Saharan Africa.

One post is for a researcher with quantitative and statistical skills. 

The other is targeted towards a researcher that has experience using qualitative methods. 

I’ll be working closely with the two successful candidates, and am looking forward to the exciting research possibilities in both projects. Please feel free to get in touch with any questions.



OXFORD INTERNET INSTITUTE

Grade 7: Salary £29,541 - £36,298 p.a.

We are looking for a full-time Researcher to work with Dr Mark Graham on an ERC-funded project which focuses on how new economic practices and processes are taking root in Sub-Saharan Africa as a result of changing connectivities. We plan to map formal and informal types of participation in ‘knowledge economies’ in order to investigate why certain places have sustained their dominance, why others have become more central, and why some places, practices, and initiatives have declined.

To do this we are seeking a researcher with experience in quantitative social research. The researcher will work on three stages of the project. First, collecting and bringing together all necessary data. While some of the data are readily available in existing and open datasets, others require the creation of custom scripts and data collection tools. Second, using GIS and statistical packages to comprehensively analyse the data. We plan to employ both inferential models and descriptive graphics and maps. Finally, broadly disseminating this work in a variety of open and accessible formats including a data-sharing tool, an interactive website, open reports, and peer-reviewed academic journal articles. The work will also be used as a base for detailed qualitative research performed by two other members of the research team.

The successful applicant will demonstrate an ability to carry out social and spatial statistical analysis, visualise results, write for both public and academic audiences, and work with an interdisciplinary team. We also welcome applications from candidates who are additionally eager to design a future research programme in order to extend the position.

Based at the Oxford Internet Institute, this position is available from 1st March 2014 for 36 months in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal thereafter funding permitting.

Only applications received before 12:00 midday on 9th January, 2014 can be considered. Interviews for those short-listed are currently planned to take place in the week commencing 27thJanuary 2014.

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




OXFORD INTERNET INSTITUTE

Grade 7: Salary £29,541 - £36,298 p.a.

The Oxford Internet Institute is a leading centre for research into individual, collective and institutional behaviour on the Internet. We are looking for a full-time Researcher to work with Dr Mark Graham and Dr Vili Lehdonvirta on the IDRC-funded project Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Combining archival research, surveys, and interviews, this ambitious project will critically assess the impact of Internet and mobile connectivities on social and economic development, particularly insofar as they open up opportunities for novel forms of online work, such as ‘e-lancing’, ‘microwork’, and ‘game labour’.

In this exciting role, the Researcher will carry out a total of approximately six months of fieldwork among virtual workers and organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as working at OII’s premises in Oxford. The Researcher will also contribute to the dissemination of the findings through peer-reviewed academic papers, project reports, events, blogs and social media.

Candidates should have experience of social science research in Development Studies, Geography, Sociology, Social Anthropology, Communications, Organization Studies, Management or related disciplines, training and practical experience in qualitative research methods.

Based primarily at the Oxford Internet Institute (with periods of fieldwork), this position is available immediately for 2.5 years in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal thereafter, funding permitting. For qualified candidates, there may also be opportunities to teach course modules on our ‘Social Science of the Internet’ MSc course.

Only online applications received before 12:00 midday on 13 December 2013 can be considered. Interviews for those short-listed are planned to take place on 16 January 2014.

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