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 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

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/