The continuing relevance of the state in the age of digital gig work

Technological change has always had an impact on the sphere of work. Every new form of work that has emerged has been accompanied by optimism about its potential, and concerns about its damaging effects. The same is true of digital gig work – a form of work that can be performed and delivered digitally via online platforms. A primary concern has been the exploitative nature of digital gig work, especially the micro-distribution models in which individuals, as “contractors”, register with the platform to complete their tasks (Meyers et al, 2017). Although being able to work from anywhere, at one’s convenience, on a digital platform may offer certain flexibility, the absence of physically proximate fellow-workers also leads to the atomization of the workforce (Kuek et al, 2015). With the supply of labour exceeding demand, there are questions about the tendency of workers to undercut one another in their eagerness to obtain work, and whether that will lead to a race to the bottom in terms of wages, reduce the bargaining power of digital gig workers and perpetuate socio-spatial disparities (Graham et al, 2017).

Historically, including in the 20th century, states have taken an active developmental role to ensure improvements in labour conditions and in aggregate standards of living. Is it possible for the state to address similar concerns that arise in the context of digital gig work, when technology gives platforms a global reach? This is an urgent question as a 2016 study by the Oxford Internet Institute reveals that a significant share of the gig workforce is in the less affluent regions of the world, primarily undertaking menial and repetitive tasks, while two-thirds of job vacancies are posted by employers from the developed world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada (Lehdonvirta, 2017).

Such demarcation between the source and destination of work, and the attendant concerns about the digital gig-economy, are reminiscent of arguments about the New International Division of Labour (NIDL). NIDL theorists, such as Frobel et al (1980), were concerned with “bloody-Taylorization” following the growth in the offshoring of low-skill, low value-added manufacturing from the 1960s. Yet, for at least four Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) in East Asia – Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong – becoming a part of the NIDL offered a path to technological ‘catch-up’ and ‘late-industrialization’. Those NICs showed how, despite starting off with less-than-desirable work, it is possible to develop indigenous capability to move toward more high-skilled, higher value-added activity. In all these NICs, the dominant institutional force behind the socio-economic transformation was the state.

Amsden and Chu (2003), for instance, point to how Taiwan entered the world semiconductor market by offering low-skill assembly work. Over time, state investments in the education system and technological acquisition, its provision of financial incentives, including tariffs and subsidies, and the building of physical infrastructure, created an industry which gave Taiwan a “second-mover advantage” and made the country the world’s leading semiconductor supplier. Specifically, firms pioneered the pure-play foundry, an organizational model in which they became adept at original design and manufacture without necessarily marketing their own brands. Thus, contrary to the fears of the NIDL theorists, the East Asian NICs showed that developing countries have the agency to move beyond exploitative niches in the international division of labour with technological upgrading. More broadly, this highlights that, while concerns about the impact of type and conditions of work on socio-spatial disparities are far from misplaced, there are also institutional means of overcoming these concerns.

The concentration of digital gig work in less affluent countries is largely due to a lack of better local job opportunities. Concerns about the precarious nature of digital gig work are equally true for locally available work in the vast informal sector, with gig work at least offering better monetary returns. But this is not an argument for the status quo. Rather, it is a call to draw from lessons, about how institutional means, especially the state, can be deployed to ensure that menial and repetitive digital gig work becomes a stepping stone to more rewarding work and not the only choice arising out of a lack of other options.

One possible initiative by the state is to build, or assist private players in building, platforms for local needs which can find global use. With such platforms within its jurisdiction, the state can regulate them to ensure adherence to socially acceptable norms of pay and work conditions. Local language platforms could be encouraged to ensure that digital gig work opportunities are available to a larger section of the population. To undertake such initiatives, the state must minimally promote what the East Asian NICs did so effectively to overcome the debilitating aspects of 20th century manufacturing – investment in education (to ensure employability) and physical infrastructure, financial incentives, and opportunities for ‘learning by doing’. Since current technology and global conditions differ from what they were 50 years ago, the specifics of state interventions will vary. But history suggests the state can play a useful role in harnessing the potential of digital gig work for social transformation. These trajectories and trends are explored at length by the author in a paper being written for the Development Informatics working series, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester.

Amsden, A. and Chu, W-w. 2003. Beyond Late Industrialization: Taiwan’s Upgrading Policies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Frobel, F, J. Heinrichs, and O. Kreye. 1980. The New International Division of Labor: Structural Unemployment in Industrialised Countries and Industrialisation in Developing Countries. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Graham, M., V. Lehdonvirta, A. Wood, H. Barnard, I. Hjorth, and D. P. Simon. 2017. The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/ gigwork.pdf (accessed 24th June 2018).

Kuek, Siou Chew et. al. 2015. The Global Opportunity in Online Outsourcing. Washington D.C.: World Bank Group.

Lehdonvirta, V. 2017.Where are online workers located? The international division of digital gig work. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/where-are-online-workers-located-the-international-division-of-digital-gig-work/ (accessed 24th June 2018)

Meyers, L., B. Minic, L. Raftree and T. Hurst. 2017. The Nexus of Microwork and Impact Sourcing: Implications for Youth Employment. http://gcyerti.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-Nexus-of-Microwork-and-Impact-Sourcing_Final_ONLINE_02.28.17_v2.pdf (accessed 25 May 2018)

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