Digital Labour

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 DIODE working paper series.

References
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)

Digital Labour

Development Implications of Digital Platform Labour

A new paper – “Understanding the Development Implications of Online Outsourcing: A Study of Digital Labour Platforms in Pakistan” – analyses the experiences of some of the millions of gig workers who undertake digital labour in developing countries via platforms such as Upwork and Freelancer.

Using the sustainable livelihoods framework as the basis for analysis, it identifies four things from interviews with workers and other stakeholders in remote areas of Northern Pakistan:

a) Employment Push: The context of politico-economic vulnerability that pushes unemployed individuals into digital work including lack of alternative employment, political instability and concerns about Islamic extremism.

b) Barriers to Gig Work: The typical barriers to digital gig work for those in more remote areas of developing countries. These include poor quality of technical infrastructure such as power and broadband connectivity; a lack of relevant knowledge and skills or the means to obtain them; limitations of current financial payment systems; and cultural norms that do not see online freelancing as constituting a “job”.

c) Worker Trajectories: The four trajectories of digital gig workers who go through training schemes: sinkers (the majority who never undertake digital platform work), strugglers (who try but appear largely unable to make a living), survivors (who can earn small amounts from digital gig work), and swimmers (who flourish and are able to build a career path via digital platforms).

d) Role of Institutions: The “re-institutionalisation” of digital labour. Notwithstanding narratives of the de-institutionalisation of digital gig work, experience in Pakistan shows three institutional forces impinging on online outsourcing to marginalised groups. There are the digital platforms themselves; often seen as improving the context for outsourcing work.  There are interventions of formal organisations – development, government and NGO agencies – who help overcome asset deficits that would otherwise exclude these groups from online outsourcing.  And there are informal linkages between freelancers themselves which provide assistance and work sub-contracts.

Digital Economy, Digital Enterprise, Digital Labour

Report from the Philippine Impact Sourcing Conference (PISCON)

The government of the Philippines through its Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) conducted the second Philippine Impact Sourcing Conference (PISCON) in Cebu 3rd and 4th of May 2018.

A main objective of the conference was to celebrate the implementation of the Rural Impact Sourcing Technical Training (RISTT) program which DICT conducted across 26 different locations in 2017. More than 600 delegates were present, with a mix of local government officials and people from the online outsourcing business in the country. DICT plan to increase the number of locations for RISTT to 65 for 2018. According to DICT undersecretary Monchito Ibrahim, there has now been a shift among the local government officials, and while DICT previously had to push for them to help host training in particular locations, it is now the local government that come to DICT and ask if they can be one of the locations for such training.

While it can be debated whether such training is impact sourcing in the purest sense of the term (see this previous DIODE blog post), there is no doubt that this training has had an impact on individuals and that new (out)sourcing jobs have been created.

In some locations, a number of the trainees went together and started their own corporations. Two such examples are Narra Digital Solutions in Zamboanga City and DigiWorkz Carmona in Carmona, Cavite.

Zamboanga City is at the southernmost part of Mindanao, a region that is currently under martial law. As recently as 2013 there was a military conflict in the city. Two mothers, who previously had to leave their children to their extended family due to work responsibilities, together with their trainer, started Narra Digital Solutions. Their main target is to do IT jobs for local companies in the Zamboanga region. Also, they do advocacy and teach others, in particular, other single mothers, to do digital work. Previously there were few such opportunities in the area, which meant that the mothers had to leave the children with their family and go to places like Manila to work. By either working from home or an office close to home, they can now take care of their children and earn money at the same time. According to the founders, they can see how their children have a better life than they had before.

DigiWorkz was started by some of the trainees, in close cooperation with the local government in Carmona. The government helped with infrastructure and a building where the cooperative now work. Like Narra Digital Solutions, DigiWorkz also primarily work with local customers and have the ambition of helping to digitalize all local business in the area by 2020. One such business is Wellvise. Having got their website designed by DigiWorkz they are now able to attract customers from wider areas.

These are just two examples of how the trainees have used the skill they got during the training to create sustainable local jobs in their region. While previous research about impact sourcing has focused primarily on the customer, the impact sourcing vendor, and impact sourcing workers, the role of the government has not got that much attention. Further, the connection between training and small impact sourcing start-ups has hardly been researched at all.

Looking into how the creation of such smaller impact sourcing companies has an impact in the local society is part of my current doctoral project where I explore the wider impact of new forms of digital work at the Philippines. You can follow the project on my Facebook page.

Enzo and Jehan 1

Lorenzo Dupa (left) from DigiWorkz Carmona and Jehann Forro from Narra Digital Solutions discuss their experiences during PISCON

Digital Labour

Mobile Microwork in South Africa

When Richard launched the DIODE network, I took this as a cue to initiate a mini-empirical research project and got Zaakirah Roomaney, one of my honours research students, to look at mobile microwork in South Africa. We just wrote up the findings as a conference paper which my colleague/co-researcher Pitso Tsibolane will present at AMCIS, New Orleans, in August. However, I thought it would be useful to mention some of our key findings here as well. (We’ll upload the paper after the conference.)

We sent out a survey request and link via Facebook, soliciting people with mobile micro-work experience or interested in participating. The sample consisted of 125 valid responses of which 70% (n=87) of respondents were female and 30% (n=38) were male. The age distribution was positively skewed with the largest response from the 20-29 years age group which represented 45% (n=17) of the male respondents being male but a fully 71% (n=62) of the female respondents. The education level of the respondents was quite high with 62% of the respondents either have a Diploma or Bachelor degree or above and 37% of the respondents having completed secondary school. 74% of respondents had not participated in any form of microwork while 26% had participated in some form of microwork.

Figure 1 below illustrates the types of microwork that respondents indicated that they would most likely (want to) partake in (single response item). The majority of respondents (20%) indicated that would most likely complete surveys if they were to participate in microwork. The second most popular task amongst the respondents was rating services (14%, n=31) followed by mystery shopping (11%, n=33).

Microwork_SA_Fig_1

Figure 1: Tasks Respondents are “most likely to complete

Potential Contribution of Microwork

When we asked what they think the major contribution of microwork could be to a nation, 69 of respondents think that microwork has the potential to decrease unemployment while 35 indicated that microwork has the potential to help a country develop. Interestingly, 11 of respondents are of the opinion that participation in microwork is a new form of exploiting cheap labour.

Microwork_SA_Fig_2

Figure 2: Potential Contribution of Microwork

Key motivators for participating in Mobile Microwork

We also asked them about a number of potential motivating factor as well as barriers. Figure 3 shows to what extent they rated particular motivators/barriers as being important.

Microwork_SA_Fig_3

Figure 3: Motivators for (intended) participation into mobile microwork.

However, more interesting was when we ran a multiple linear regression test to see which of these actually were a statistical predictor for their intended future participation in mobile microwork. It turns out that only payment/remuneration is significant in the model (p = 0.006)> However, the overall multiple regression model has an R² of only 0.13 with an adjusted R² of a measly 0.03 i.e. we could only ‘explain’ 3% of the variance in intended future microwork participation from the usually cited motivators and inhibitors !

More interpretations and full details in the forthcoming publication of the AMCIS paper. Please feel free to comment or contact me directly.

Jean-Paul Van Belle; Centre for IT and National Development in Africa (CITANDA), University of Cape Town (UCT).

 

Digital Enterprise, Digital Labour

Digital Social Entrepreneurship in India

India is now a great place for high-tech start-ups [1]. A bullish consumer market means exciting new opportunities for entrepreneurs. But not all fledgling high-tech enterprises in India are fixated on encouraging hyper-consumption and serving the entertainment needs of a growing middle class. Some have a much different orientation and claim to operate from a heightened sense of social conscience, if you will. They are engaged in what may be termed as digital social entrepreneurship (DSE) – the entrepreneurial work of social ventures whose business models rely primarily on digital technologies. This group of entrepreneurs swear by mainstream business school lexicon, but paradoxically profit maximization is not their aim. Rather, they are driven by the desire to do social good and the power and reach of digital technologies is central to their quest. Working with PhD students and colleagues I have been fortunate to have got the opportunity to study some fascinating and inspiring cases of DSE in India [2, 3, 4]. These organizations are working to address seemingly intractable and complex problems such as financial exclusion, limited access to quality health care and outward migration from rural areas. Our ongoing research projects illuminate several interesting dimensions of the DSE phenomenon in India.

Background and entrepreneurial motivation

In many respects, DSE in India owes a lot to the dramatic growth of the Indian information technology (IT) industry since the mid-1990s. The technological capabilities underpinning most cases of DSE can be traced back to a founder’s distinguished stint in the IT industry. From a motivational standpoint, we find that DSE typically originates from the founders’ quest for a higher purpose in life and their profound sense of empathy with those that seem to have reaped little or no gains from globalization. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their IT background, such entrepreneurs have a ‘digital core’ in their ventures.

Digital infrastructure in India is rapidly outpacing the institutional infrastructure. Thus, despite possessing superb and advanced digital capabilities the goals of DSE often needs to be recalibrated and rearticulated to align with the interests of a bewildering array of formidable state and non-state actors. All things being equal the ability to orchestrate non-market strategies can become the single most determining factor for success. Thus the prospects of DSE, at least in the foreseeable future, seem to hinge on the skilful entrepreneurial navigation of the non-digital elements.

Juxtaposition of commerce and conscience can lead to conflicts. Hybrid business models are known to create ideological rifts within senior management teams: ‘Should we take money from investor A when we know they don’t invest to generate social impact? Will such an investment compromise our social mission?’

It can also become increasingly difficult to retain the commitment of an otherwise competent workforce to a grand social mission and they may turn to more lucrative jobs elsewhere in the market. In this sense, ‘social’ encoding and imprinting can be a particularly precarious achievement in many cases of DSE.

Developmental impacts of DSE

Documenting ‘impact’ needs patience and creativity. It is also not always clear what impact means in the DSE context. Should we be looking purely at economic impacts? In analysing impacts, how do we account for improved life-chances of beneficiaries? There is an urgent need for longitudinal field research, which will serve to both showcase outcomes of DSE as well as convince potential investors that their money will be put to good use.

A closing thought: Since society prefers altruistic performances to commercial ones, many digital entrepreneurs may retrospectively overstate their original intended commitment to social good (e.g. Facebook?). After all, stories often become grander and morally righteous in their retelling! However, before dismissing such performances as lacking credibility it is worth remembering that all entrepreneurship will (through job creation) almost certainly have a positive social and developmental impact [5]. This insight should not threaten the idea of DSE, but should help us better understand its limits and trajectories.

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/10/india-startup-boom-in-charts/

[2] Sandeep, M.S. and Ravishankar, M.N. (2013) The other India – Emergence of rural sourcingProfessional Outsourcing, Spring(12), pp.14-20.

[3] Sandeep, M.S. and Ravishankar, M.N. (in press) Sociocultural transitions and developmental impacts in the digital economy of impact sourcingInformation Systems Journal, DOI: 10.1111/isj.12149

[4] Masiero, S. and Ravishankar, M.N. (2017) Digital technologies and pro-poor finance in India. In The Proceedings of the Aston India Centre for Applied Research Conference, Birmingham, UK. Winner of the Best Paper Award for Innovative Research.

[5] https://yourstory.com/2014/11/impact-of-startups/

Digital Economy, Digital Labour

The Role of Digital Jobs in Solving Youth Unemployment in Kenya

iHub Research in 2014 published a report on Digital Jobs in Kenya. Fast forward to 2018 how far are we? A key insight presented in the report was that there existed a digital skills gap between theoretical skills, attained by youth through various programs, and practical skills, sought after by employers despite the existence of the key trends of: online work, big data analytics, and the mobile applications sector which present great potential for large-scale digital job creation in the future.

February 2018, unemployment is hitting record highs of 39.1% in Kenya, based on a report by the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) 2017 and in its midst there’s been concerted efforts towards encouraging entrepreneurship, it’s clear that we need to innovate around solving the problem of unemployment.

In December 2016 the government of Kenya launched the online jobs portal, Ajira in a bid to take advantage of ICTs in eradicating unemployment; specifically targeting the youth, with the promise that it would equip 1 million Kenyans with digital skills so that they can secure employment. Ajira’s tag line which states “Online WORK is WORK” aims to raise the profile of online work, promote a mentorship and collaborative learning approach to finding online work, provide Kenyans with access to online work and finally to promote Kenya as a destination for online work.

Since its launch we’ve barely heard of progress, statistics or testimonies of the users of the platform. We do know that together with Kenya Private Sector Alliance, the Ministry of ICT as a result of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation are implementing the first phase of the Ajira mentorship program, to train and mentor future young online workers. Will this be the reason Ajira and the concept of digital work will successfully scale in Kenya?

The concept of digital work is definitely not one that is new in Kenya and definitely not across the world, from where we can learn great lessons. Already existing in Kenya is the platform KuHustle that has 32,000 plus online workers, with over 1,000 jobs posted worth over US$920,000.

In order to adequately take advantage of this opportunity it is paramount to address the barriers affecting the job market as a whole in Kenya and creating mechanisms to overcome these barriers. Based on estimates from the government before the launch of Ajira in 2016, it was assumed that there were already 40,000 Kenyans working online and as adoption of technology and the Internet is gradually increasing in the country, this number has most definitely increased and has the potential to continue to do so, with time.

Digital job platforms serve the purpose of easing the process of connecting employers to a competitive selection of employees from different locations, background and privilege so long as they have an internet connection. Meanwhile it seems in this central narrative that technology in the form of digital jobs will be the salve of solving youth unemployment. How true is this assessment?

There is no doubt that digital jobs will definitely enable and increase the possibility of a greater percentage of the young population in Kenya (who are possibly marginalised due to issues surrounding lack of access) to acquire formal employment at higher wages than they would have previously probably acquired. Beyond the basic digital skill gap that is being addressed through training and mentorship by government initiatives, there exists huge demand for specialised skills, such as developers, data scientists, which the current supply levels fail to meet and this is an example of some of the fundamental barriers affecting the job market in Kenya, that need to be addressed while also focusing on digital jobs.

By utilising this multi-stakeholder and multi-dimensional perspective in analysing the challenges currently being faced in the job market in Kenya today, this approach will propel us closer to solving the issue of youth unemployment.

 

Digital Labour

Be Mindful of the Short-Circuiting of Platform Work Narratives

The fight for fair and decent digital work involves multiple fronts. These include advocacy for accountable applications of technology, an inclusive policy-making agenda, and the construction of alternative narratives to those favored by companies or neoliberal governments or both, to list a few. The fight for fair and decent digital work is also deeply affected by local and national contextual factors such as the existing labor market and local income level. All seem to be uphill battles calling for joint efforts from concerned scholars, activists, and workers.

The latest globally uneven proliferations of platform-dependent jobs (e.g., gig driving and micro-work) raise serious challenges in terms of how to localize the multi-front battle for fair and decent digital work. For developing countries in particular, which often concern themselves with integrating into the global (digital) economy and development agenda, the discursive front of the fight for fair and decent digital work—that is, mainstreaming the worker-centered narratives about platform work—turns out to be tougher than other fronts.

Scholars like to use the trope of the “black box” (Pasquale, 2015) to describe the secretive and opaque way in which private IT companies utilize proprietary algorithms to manipulate consumers, users, and workers. Though scholars may perform reverse engineering to gather information on the inner workings of certain algorithms, systematic knowledge is hard to acquire. For example, the secrets of Uber’s surge pricing algorithm were revealed in 2015. However, the surge pricing algorithm does not function in isolation in shaping drivers’ working experience with the ride-hailing apps, while Uber may change how the algorithm works at its will. Thanks to the work of many scholars (see, for example, Rosenblat & Stark, 2016), the informational asymmetry between companies on the one hand and consumers, users, and workers on the other has been recognized as a structural feature of the power dynamics among workers, the platform company, and the regulatory authority.

Besides opaque algorithms operating in the dark, I have become aware of the back-channel circulation of narratives about digital platforms and jobs (workers) directly from private companies to governmental official reports without engaging with third-party institutions or scholars’ voices, not to mention the inclusion of workers’ perspectives. I call this phenomenon the “short-circuiting of platform (work) narratives.”

Platform companies have the tendency to brand themselves as pioneers in offering technological solutions to social problems, and the leading Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing is no exception. It builds its platform work narratives around creating jobs and increasing income. Didi claims that the company created 17 million flexible jobs in 2016 and more than 21 million drivers earned their income on the platform from June 2016 to June 2017 (Didi, 2016; Didi Institute of Policy Study, 2017). Taxi drivers do not belong to the category of “new jobs,” despite the fact that a great majority of taxi drivers in China also work on the Didi platform (Chen, 2017a). The two reports highlight the company’s contributions to jobs-creation particularly in regions and sectors where China’s national development strategy for economic restructuring has brought about staggering figures of unemployment. These regions include the heavy-industrial sectors of the rust-belt provinces in northeastern China Take the 2016 report as an example; other than the vague number of 17 million and 5 million job opportunities for laid-off factory workers, the report revealed few details on specific work conditions or if the income earned through the platform accounted for living wages. The China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)—China’s authoritative agency on statistics about Internet use—cited Didi’s jobs-creation number (17 million) word for word in its annual report on China’s state of platform economy (CNNIC & Internet Society of China Sharing Economy Committee, 2017). In the absence of other figures or reports on drivers’ work conditions, CNNIC echoed the rhetoric of jobs creation and did not delve into the challenges facing drivers in the ride-hailing platforms.

China is hardly alone in the short-circuiting of platform narratives. This process is dangerous because it allows the language and figures of jobs creation, and more importantly, the framing of the platform’s contributing role in the economy, to travel in a narrative package from the private company to the governmental report. But the governmental report also serves as the reference for scholars and policy-makers. Without incorporating alternative perspectives and narratives on the relationship between platform technologies and workers and development, the governmental report may be at risk of losing its public accountability, which further prevents counter-narratives from surfacing into the mainstream conversations on how accomplish the goal of fair and decent digital work.

Works Cited

Chen, J. Y. (2017a). Technologies of control, communication, and calculation: taxi driver’s labor in the platform economy. In P. Moore, M. Upchurch, & X. Whittaker (Eds.), Humans and machines at work: monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism (pp. 231–255). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

CNNIC & Internet Society of China Sharing Economy Committee. (2017). Report on the Development of the Sharing Economy in China. Beijing.

Didi. (2016). Job Creation – VALUES. Retrieved September 5, 2017, from http://www.didichuxing.com/en/values/job-creation

Didi Institute of Policy Study. (2017). New Economy, New Jobs: 2017 Research Report on jobs on Didi Chuxing. Beijing, China: Didi Institute of Policy Study.

Pasquale, F. A. (2015). The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosenblat, A., & Stark, L. (2016). Algorithmic Labor and Information Asymmetries: A Case Study of Uber’s Drivers. International Journal of Communication, 10, 3758–3784.