Digital Labour

Why Digital Geography Matters to Digital Workers

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New forms of digital work have emerged which, in theory, can be done from anywhere. Does this mean that geography no longer matters to digital work? Not exactly.

My new chapter with Amir Anwar draws on our empirical research into digital labor to outline how geography still matters, and who it matters for in a world of increasingly digital work. The contemporary geography of digital labor can be used to exploit workers, but we also argue that it opens up distinct possibilities for digital workers to recreate their own worlds of work.

You can access a pre-publication version of the chapter below as well as a few paragraphs from the conclusions.

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

Conclusions

The networking of the world has not rendered geography irrelevant – far from it. Clients now have access to a globally-dispersed pool of workers tethered to their homes because labor-power does still have to go home every night. This state of affairs presents a worrying and precarious situation for digital workers. In this chapter, we have argued that a spatial division of labor has been constructed in which digital labor is traded as a commodity at a global scale by placing workers into competition with one another in way that undermines the power of workers.

However, the geographic landscapes of digital labor that we see are not an inevitable outcome of the spread of digital technologies to every corner of the world. This chapter also argues that possibilities exist for what Herod (2001) refers to as ‘labor geographies’: spatial fixes created by and for workers that challenge the idea that atomized competition is an inevitability. Two very different ontologies – ‘digitally distinct space’ and ‘digitally augmented space’ – can be used to build those strategies.

This is not just an argument about semantics. Workers, unions, and regulators are all using outdated concepts to try and make sense of a contemporary world of work. If we are to build a fairer world of work, we are going to need new language and new concepts for networks, processes and organisations of digital labor, for strikes, for picket lines, and for coalitions of, and collaborations between, workers. These concepts will shape how we understand digital labor and how we envision ‘paths to the possible.’

Strategically deploying those spatial ontologies reveals sites at which the proactive geographical praxis of workers can reshape the geographies of labor. Workers do not necessarily need global campaigns to match the global reach of platforms and clients – instead, they need to understand the nodes at which the local can influence the non-local. Workers carry the power to dismiss the idea that digital labor represents a final hegemonic spatial fix in which they have no agency due to atomization and the commodification of work. Reconceptualizing the geographies of digital labor and digital labor geographies reveals remaining possibilities for collective action, for labor’s own spatial fixes, and for a reshaping of the very landscapes of digital work.

Digital Labour

The changing strategies by digital labour platforms and its impact on freelancers in the Global South

Policy makers in the Global South have discovered digital labour platforms (e.g. Upwork, Freelancer) as a potential source for employment. In his blog-post of June 28, Brian Nicholson mentioned initiatives in Pakistan and Nigeria that train young people for online work. In the Philippines, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) organises so-called ‘rural impact sourcing’ workshops around the country. Despite using the term impact sourcing, these events have no connection with the original conceptualisation of impact sourcing which highlights how social enterprises hire and train marginalized individuals for digital work. These events are often sponsored by the country’s main internet providers and aim to make participants interested in becoming ‘Online Filipino Workers’ (as paraphrase of the well-known term Overseas Filipino Worker). Apparently, for policy makers in the Global South, the digital labour market is seen as an infinite source of employment that should be tapped rather than restricted or regulated. Such workshops also still present digital labour platforms as ‘global labour auctions’ in which everyone can participate regardless of his/her location as long as there is digital connectivity (for which an internet provider that you can sign up with is right at hand).

In reality, digital labour platforms (like in this case of Upwork) no longer function as a labour auction. In the past few years a number of measures have been taken by Upwork through which it increasingly benefits and favours a small number of successful, high-earning freelancers. The ease of entry for freelancers had created a situation in which even for jobs with limited remuneration dozens or even hundreds of freelancers would apply. With the platform still retaining a fixed percentage of the agreed remuneration as its fee, the so caused downward pressure on price formation also ate into Upwork’s revenues. Obviously, from a business perspective, it is not in Upwork’s interest to have too many freelancers competing on the platform, causing a downward pressure on price formation and the gains from the work performed to be spread too thinly. The introduction of a $3 per hour minimum wage in 2014 had been a first step attempt at ‘price support’ and additional value capture by Upwork. However, in practice it led to more projects being offered for a (low) fixed amount instead of for an hourly compensation. Therefore, Upwork needed a more drastic shake-up of its business model in order to generate more revenues for its investors.

Upwork’s transformation of recent years is best summarized as a change from labour facilitator to labour arbitrator (see Govil and Patnaik, 2014). The platform now no longer only provides a meeting place for the supply and demand of online labour but is directly involved in the recruitment of freelancers for clients and also handles pay-rolling (through Upwork Payroll). In 2016, it introduced Upwork Pro and Upwork Enterprise. In Upwork Pro clients receive help with drafting the project requirements and Upwork selects and shortlists premium freelancers for the job. Upwork Enterprise is aimed at larger organizations and involves the full-scale management of freelancers by Upwork. Upwork’s commission is no longer a flat 10 per cent, but varies with the size of the project to incentivize higher-value, longer-term projects. The main change for freelancers is that they can ‘buy’ their visibility in the search machine by taking a paid membership of $10 per month, which obviously benefits the financially stronger freelancers. An additional measure is the ‘job success rate’ of freelancers, an algorithmic score that apart from the ‘old’ job performance rating also includes such factors as whether the freelancer has won repeat and larger contracts, and experienced disputes with clients. It clearly favours freelancers who have managed to land longer term collaborations with single clients over those who tend to earn from multiple small gigs (which is more common among freelancers working part time).

Successful freelancers are now invited to join a talent pool which connects them to larger client projects. A catch is that those who accept, are required to be available for Upwork only (committing at least 30 hours per week). On the other side (and seemingly inspired by Taylorist management principles), Upwork has started to suspend accounts of freelancers who lack distinctive skills or who are not generating enough revenues. New freelancers (particularly those with ubiquitous skills) are also no longer automatically accepted on the platform. This means that Upwork now more actively intervenes in the pool of labour it offers to clients, making freelancers vulnerable to sudden policy changes by the platform. Once freelancers work via the platform, Upwork expects their loyalty and exclusive, full-time availability. However, Upwork does not offer any kind of social protection in return. Upwork tries to control (and discipline) its labour pool through negative measures (such as the fear of terminating the profile or reduce the visibility in the search machine). Here you can wonder how well aware they are of the everyday lives and responsibilities of their freelancers in the Global South.

This blog showed the contradiction between Southern policy makers who (still) view digital labour platforms as an infinite source for employment, and the platform which is tightening the grip on its pool of freelancers and which makes it increasingly hard for new entrants to join. Recent measures by the platform work against freelancers from the Global South, particularly the many of them working in the low-skill segment of the digital labour platform. By providing more services and introducing more rules, platforms like Upwork increase their influence on how freelance labour is globally traded and, in the process, try capturing a larger share of the value that they help to create. Upwork’s evolution from a discrete facilitator towards an ever more manifest, some may say obtrusive arbitrator, shows that in fact a new intermediary, equipped with new measures for disciplining labour, has been born. Not only does this require new legislation, it also requires a debate with platform owners with regard to their responsibilities towards their community of workers.

Govil, A. and S. Patnaik (2014). The Future of BPO: How Human Cloud and Infrastructure Cloud are changing the Game. Los Angeles: Avasant Research http://avasant.com/insights/digital/the-future-of-bpo-how-human-cloud-and-infrastructure-cloud-are-changing-the-game/

Digital Economy, Digital Labour

Early regulatory reforms can benefit developing countries in the digital economy

Over the last few years, the use of digital technologies has grown rapidly. The Internet has played a key role in driving this digital growth. However, whilst these new developments have created many advantages and brought varying degrees of development and ‘inclusivity’ in developing economies, issues of governance and policy are growing almost simultaneously with every new innovation and development in digital technologies. While a clear majority of these are issues of infrastructure (technical), online security and privacy (ethical), there are also other emerging aspects which require immediate policy reviews.

Take for example bike-sharing platforms. Cities in the UK have recently seen a splurge of hi-tech rental bikes on its streets. These ‘dockless’ hire systems allow users to pick up and leave the bike anywhere for just £1 an hour, locking and unlocking them with a simple smartphone app. The flexibility of use of these station-less smart bikes (unlike the Transport for London’s Boris/Santander bikes that need docking at specific docking stations) has popularised use of oBike (a Singapore start-up) and moBike (a Chinese start-up).

While this new pollution-free, high-tech bike-sharing transport system has provided many, especially those without the potential of owning a personal bike, an opportunity to travel around the city quickly and at minimal costs, this newly introduced digital economy business model has raised new regulatory issues.

The bikes are not quite as nature-friendly when they are left at any nook and corner.  In London, the masses of bikes created a huge hindrance for pedestrians, wheelchair users and those with buggies, as they began cluttering the streets and blocking paths. In Manchester, newly launched Mobikes were reported being sabotaged, stolen or dumped in canals and bins.

Such outcomes highlight emerging tensions for policymakers as they seek to encourage innovation and business start-ups, and promote sustainability.

The above refers to incidences in a developed country with supposedly advanced transport systems and planning regulations. If the same approach were to be applied in developing economies, leaving these dockless bikes lying around in the streets that are already overwhelmed with traffic, vendors and pedestrians can lead to even more drastic consequences, not ruling out the added possibility of these bikes being pilfered. Already, in China, where this business model was initially carried out, piles of these hire bikes were found dumped on the streets of Shenzhen. While the idea of introducing these bikes in China was for a sustainable cause – to help lower congestion and air pollution – it led to further unnecessary congestion and pile-ups.

Other parallels can be drawn with similar business models and platform companies, such as the food delivery courier Deliveroo, the car-hailing platform Uber, and the home-sharing app, Airbnb, where governance is a growing issue.

The recent legal actions against Deliveroo and Uber highlight the issues around  self-employed contractors without access to benefits such as sick pay, paid holiday, pensions, and protection afforded by the minimum wage.

Deliveroo claimed that the current law does not cater to the flexible working system where the company pays its workers by the job and not by the hour, and even called for a change in UK law to be able to give its workers more rights. Uber too maintained that its drivers are self-employed contractors rather than permanent employees and are not entitled to such benefits.

Despite these persistent claims, Deliveroo was forced to remove a controversial clause in its agreement which restricted couriers’ ability to challenge their self-employed status at an employment tribunal and work for other companies. Deliveroo was also made to remove a clause that obliged riders to give two weeks’ notice to terminate their agreement with Deliveroo. Uber on the other hand lost a court case when the employment tribunal ruled in favour of cab drivers and ordered Uber to pay drivers national living wage and holiday pay (though Uber is appealing the decision).

In a similar incident in 2012, an MTurk[1] worker filed an employment lawsuit in California against CrowdFlower, an intermediary firm between the MTurk platform and several end-clients. The microworkers claimed they were misclassified as independent contractors and paid less than the legal minimum wage. The suit obtained class action status and was settled in 2014 for $585,000 in favour of MTurk workers who had done more than a minimal amount of work for CrowdFlower.

While the above cases show a positive outcome to cases against gig economy operators in developed economies, where ministers can order a crackdown on these firms, such sophisticated and organised systems are often absent or lacking in developing economies with similar problems. Lawsuits can be highly unaffordable for those in developing countries, not forgetting that these gig economy workers may also be illiterate (e.g. cab drivers, courier personnel etc.) and unaware of their legal rights. Corruption within the legal system may also hinder gig workers in these economies from filing cases, where companies are powerful and able sometimes to bribe their way out of such sticky situations. These drawbacks open the door for greater exploitation of workers within developing economies.

Laws need updating to cater to the new business models of the digital economy. However, with innovation moving faster than regulation being brought in, legislation is rarely achieved quickly. What little legislation exists only serves narrow interests and provides minimal protection for workers and users. So what are the implications for developing countries? And how can developed economies lead the process for change to benefit developing countries?

For one, developed economies are leaders in setting standards and perhaps need to do more in terms of ensuring that these high standards are met not only within its own jurisdictions but also across borders where such international companies operate. Governments in developing economies also need to be more proactive in understanding and regulating new models of work as well as working with platform firms to curtail exploitation. The weak labour laws and governance in developing countries can sometimes be an attraction for companies in the West keen to penetrate markets in developing countries. This often leaves workers in developing economies open to exploitation and at a severe disadvantage as their governments are more interested in attracting new business investments and businesses in gaining entry to new markets. It is common knowledge that online microworkers in developing economies are paid less than their counterparts in developed economies for the same work. It highlights the need to reform existing regulatory frameworks.

Further, with relatively weak institutions and capacity for implementing policy in developing countries, the issues can be even more detrimental. Shocking stories of rapes by Uber and Ola cab drivers have been a regular headline in the news in India, and growing. This resulted in a temporary ban on these services in New Delhi, as it was discovered that Uber had not carried out proper verification checks on drivers. But little has been done in terms of legislation to avoid these incidents in future. Such negative occurrences can be a hindrance to the growth of the digital economy in developing economies that can otherwise benefit from the use of digital technologies.

It is also well-known that there is a massive digital divide between developed and developing countries, urban and rural regions, when it comes to anything digital. Within developing economies, rural areas and women and girls are often found to be excluded from participation in the digital economy due to various infrastructural and cultural issues.  Thus, new business and employment models are not quite accessible to these women or to those at the bottom of the pyramid who live below the poverty line and struggle to buy a meal a day, let alone have the income to pay for bike hire. There is a danger that such business models, while bringing new benefits, can also create a wider divide among urban-and-rural regions, and consequently between developed-and-developing economies.

As new business models of the digital economy make their way to the Global South, the importance of developing sound digital economy policies in developing/emerging countries must be emphasised. Emerging/developing markets are the engines of global growth and generate some of the most attractive investment opportunities globally. The IMF have projected that emerging/developing economies will grow by 4.5% in 2017, versus just 2% in developed economies. If governments in such emerging and developing economies want to entice and sustain foreign investors and innovators, they would need to focus on serious legislative strategies early on, that would not only benefit businesses but also citizens. While developing countries can ‘learn’ from some of the experiences of developed countries, they would still need to design policies that meet their own needs and which fit their local setting. For instance, policies in developing countries need greater focus on regional and gender inclusivity and other technical and social issues to reduce inequality and enable participation of the underprivileged in the digital economy. Regulatory reforms are also needed that ensure platform operators’ responsibility when it comes to protection of users against exploitation and hazards.

It is evident that the challenges of regulation exist not only within developed economies but also in developing economies, when it comes to digital platforms. New legislation needs to be put in place as developments in digital technologies grow. While one may insist that it’s “a grey area”, reform in existing regulatory frameworks is paramount and urgent, especially in developing countries with weak institutional settings, inadequate education systems and large pools of labour. It will ensure that such aspects as the sharing/gig economy will serve as an opportunity rather than be used as a tool for exploitation.

[1] MTurk or Mechanical Turk: The oldest and most well-known microwork platform owned by Amazon

Digital Labour

Development and crowdsourcing

A recent publication at the IFIP 9.4 conference in Indonesia “Understanding the Development Implications of Online Outsourcing” focused on analysing interviews with Upwork freelancers in the Pakistan Himalayas.  The framework we used was based on the DFID livelihoods and this was useful in making sense of the extent to which the Upwork platform was contributing to development.  The Youth Employment Programme (http://www.youthemp.com) of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) provincial government which aims to train 40,000 young people to use Upwork and similar platforms.  This is an integral part of Pakistan government policy in the region to bring marginalised people into gainful employment.  The results of our study were mixed, some of the freelancers were unable to engage at all even though they had been trained.  The frictionless marketplace was too intense and demanding for many of them. Others were seen to engage in a very limited way but a few were able to make a living and there was evidence of collectives developing into small businesses.  The success of the winners is encouraging but a lot are falling by the wayside.  There are many policy initiatives:

  • The NaijaCloud initiative in Nigeria, sponsored by the World Bank and supported by the national government, which provides awareness workshops on online outsourcing.
  • Malaysia’s eRezeki initiative (https://erezeki.my/en/home) which has trained hundreds of freelancers and now uses a “walled garden” approach with US crowdsourcing platform Massolutions: a managed portal for OO work such that the work process is controlled by government.

Protecting the individual worker from the intensity of competition inherent in multinational freelancing platforms is a facet of ERezeki .  The workers never actually engage with the platform, instead a government controlled portal mediates the work and protects the worker from bidding and managing clients.  This is not the only mechanism for reintermediating controls over the frictionless work platform marketplace.  A good example is cooperative platforms  where the workers also manage the platform thus offering a more equitable relationship for the workers.  Clearly there is more work to be done on how best to mediate plaform based “gig economy” for development exploring the limits and downsides of Upwork and other purely commercial logic driven platforms; in country alternatives such as Iran’s Ponisha to PPP arrangements and other business models including cooperatives.

Digital Labour

Platforms, crowdsourcing and the “poverty – risk” thesis

At the recent DIODE meeting in Indonesia we participants split off into groups to focus on particular topics one of which was the development implications of crowdsourcing platforms.  There is a significant critique of crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon MTurk focussing on the same criticisms levelled at the “gig economy”: lack of any holidays, sickness, pension and health and safety.  Whether the quintessential “gig platform” Uber has employees or is just a technology company is a topic for Union activism and courtroom debate.  Amazon MTurk, Crowdflower, Upwork, Fiverr etc. have yet to come under the same level of scrutiny as Uber who remain in the spotlight of Union and other stakeholder activism.

This is perhaps because exemplary platform-based organisations such as Samasource take paid work to marginalised individuals where the work options are limited and who otherwise would either be unemployed or working in much worse conditions.  However, this does not mean the work is risk free and little is known about the nature of the work done in developing countries and the effects.

The late sociologist Ulrich Beck in his book “Risk Society”[1] argues that there is a “systematic attraction between extreme poverty and extreme risk” citing the examples of people in developing countries poisoned by engaging in work such as manual processing of asbestos brake linings, fertiliser application and afflicted by the lax safety standards that caused the Bhopal chemical disaster.

How could crowdsourcing carry such a relationship?  During the course of the discussion we focussed on some of problematic issues around the issue of content moderation.  It would appear there is some evidence of Beck’s “poverty-risk” hypothesis applying here.

The task of removal of extreme pornographic and other images considered offensive such as ISIS beheadings reported as offensive from platforms such as Facebook is undertaken by workers in the Philippines[2].  The mental health implications of this are as yet unknown but the interviews the Wired article below indicate that significant trauma is experienced by the workers who are responsible for identifying and removing many hundreds of such images per day.

There is some literature derived from other occupations such as the police who are dealing with paedophilia images as part of investigations. It is worth considering the conclusions of the study :

“The results revealed that Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) investigators experience salient emotional, cognitive, social and behavioural consequences due to viewing ICE material and their reactions can be short and long term. The degree of negative impact appears to vary markedly across individuals, types and content of material and viewing context, with variation based on individual, case-related and contextual factors both in and outside the workplace.”[3]

Viewing these images clearly has negative effect and measuring and monitoring the effect is under researched. The Police force recognise there is a problem with repeated exposure to such images and video content and have put in place policy for management of the effects such as counselling etc.

As yet there is no evidence that crowdsourcing platforms have considered the need for employee health and safety (partly because of the lack of distinction on responsibilities of platform based organisations for health and safety, ethics regarding freelance gig workers vs. employees).

There is clearly a research agenda for us to pursue regarding the ethics, training needs and mental health implications of platform based crowdsourcing.

[1] Risk Society Towards a New Modernity Ulrich Beck

[2] https://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/

[3] Powell, M., Cassematis, P., Benson, M. et al. J Police Officers’ Perceptions of their Reactions to Viewing Internet Child Exploitation Material  Police Crim Psych (2015) 30: 103. doi:10.1007/s11896-014-9148-z

Digital Labour

Harnessing the Digital Revolution for Inclusive Prosperity

I had the pleasure of attending the Digital Development Summit 2017 on 13 March 2017 where digital interest groups from around the world gathered together to discuss the future of work in the digital economy. Hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation and Nesta in London, the Summit featured thought leaders from think tanks, government, the private sector and academia, and offered new perspectives, actionable takeaways, and access to a phenomenal and diverse network of like-minded digital evangelists.

The overall theme of the Summit was based around the future of work in a digitised world where advances in digital technologies threaten to disrupt labour markets around the world. Some of the big questions deliberated at the Summit were – What would be the impact of technology in the next 10-15 years? And how could we ensure that no one was left behind in the digital economy?

 It is believed that the huge technological change brought about by the digital revolution could spawn mass unemployment especially in developing countries. It is difficult to comprehend that 2/3 of jobs may be under threat due to automation in developing countries and likely to be more disruptive than in the developed world. Interestingly, though there is huge emphasis on Decent Work and Economic Growth in the newly established UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is no mention of digital technologies in work-related outcomes.

New technologies are bringing opportunities and challenges to working lives in the global South. However, significant and urgent changes are needed to prepare for the impacts, whether intended or unintended, brought about by automation and digitisation. A key discussion that struck me at the Summit was the dilemma of automation and artificial intelligence and its consequences.  As Ben Ramalingam of IDS put it, it could lead to people being accountable to “robo bosses”.  Duncan Green from Oxfam also pointed out that AI will enable lots of consumers but no human producers.

Yet, with innovations moving at a faster pace than regulation, and policies being put into place, how well-prepared are developing countries – envisaged to receive the greatest impacts from these new technological developments – to cope with these future impacts?

The Summit allowed for deeper discussions on these aspects by incorporating a few practical and interactive exercises using grids and the World Café method that allowed all delegates to engage in discussions on the future of work in developing countries. Using real-life examples from research carried out in emerging economies the first exercise explored how different jobs fare within the digital economy, keeping in mind the adaptive capacity (high or low) and exposure (high or low) to digital technologies by each individual. Using a four quadrant grid, this exercise helped elevate thinking into the current scenario of workers, whether they are in full-time jobs, entrepreneurs or freelancing in the gig economy. It opened up conversations on the complexity of issues related to the impact of digitisation on individual working lives.

Exercise 2 (World Café) then led to deeper thinking on the actions that would be required by different stakeholders to help build prosperity and resilience in the face of the digital economy. This interactive discussion resulted in an interesting and extensive input of ideas and perspectives through several conversational rounds from delegates from diverse backgrounds – from transnational interactions and conversations required by developed and developing countries’ governments to establishing universal minimum wages, bringing in new standards and regulations and training for those with low digital capacity and low exposure, among others, being proposed. Of course, it was noted that different countries have different priorities and needs, which need to be considered as well.

Such on-going multi-stakeholder gatherings bring out diverse discussions and help shape the futures of vulnerable people in developing (and developed) economies through conversations that matter. Of course most at the Summit had a very optimistic view (including myself) about the future of the digital economy but as we all left the Summit it was evident that there was much to be done in terms of securing the future of work in developing countries and an ingrained understanding that there is a need for all stakeholders … including and not limited to – the government,  private sector, academics, unions, think tanks, NGOs, etc… to put people at the forefront and to work together to ensure decent work for all.