In the first article of a three-part series exploring “Digital Transformations of Work”, Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses the “worrying futures” facing digital workers, as well as outlining prospects for alternatives.

Digital "gold farming" in Cambodia (professional gaming) in Cambodia. Image: Mark Graham

Digital “gold farming” in Cambodia (professional gaming) in Cambodia. Image: Mark Graham

William is a 26-year-old freelancer from one of Nairobi’s slums who does search engine optimisation work. He is one of millions in low-income countries like Kenya who can use work obtained via the internet to transcend some of the constraints of their local labour markets.

Well-paying work is hard to come by for young people in Nairobi. But, with a computer and an internet connection, William and many like him can now, in theory, work for people from all of the world.

As a result, there are many in the international development sector who see digital work as a sort of panacea. And our research has indeed shown that digital work can bring jobs and income to poor communities and can help workers to learn marketable skills.

Some of the work available through the Internet is the kind of work many of us are familiar with: work that is now simply more straightforward to contract to individuals rather than just large outsourcing firms. This includes work like translation, transcription, and software development.

Other types of work are the sorts of jobs that few of us would have even thought about ten years ago: tasks like digital image tagging, playing games to sell virtual goods, and the writing of text for search engine algorithms rather than people to read.

Digital work: no panacea

Billions of dollars are now transacted through digital work marketplaces, and almost all of this work is potentially available to any of the three and a half billion people on our planet who are now connected to the internet.

But this future of work might not actually be so rosy, even for some of the world’s poorest who are now joining these digital labour markets. I recently spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute’s ‘Digital Transformations of Work’ conference with the economist Guy Standing. In our talks, we both pointed to some worrying futures for digital work and digital workers.

VIDEO: Watch Mark’s presentation “Digital Labour and Development: New Knowledge Economies or Digital Sweatshops”

VIDEO: Watch Guy’s presentation “Rentier Capitalism: Taskers in the Precariat”

Guy spoke extensively about ‘The Precariat: a segment of the population whose work is temporary, who subsist on very low wages, and who receive few (or no) benefits or social protections. These are people who lack an ‘occupational narrative’, and who live with a deep existential insecurity.

Our own research, that interviewed about 150 digital workers in Africa and Asia, also found some similar concerns. Although there are new jobs for many who crave and need them, many also encounter significant problems. Almost all of the workers that we spoke to fit many of Guy’s characteristics of precariat workers: with the notable exception that a significant number are relatively well paid.

The digital precariat

Upwork homepage offers “great work” while bragging to employers about the ease of quickly shedding their workers.

Digital workers can usually be fired at will with some platforms like Upwork even bragging to employers about the ease of quickly shedding their workers. Many people don’t know what their work schedule will look like tomorrow, let alone next month and workers all over the world often align their work patterns, and stay up at night, to be in sync with clients in Western Europe and North America.

Another characteristic of digital work is that it tends to be performed outside of the purview of national governments, and we observed wage theft and a general lack of enforcement of worker protections. The importance of customer ranking systems means that the balance of online power is heavily weighted towards intermediaries and middlemen who often end up capturing much more value than workers themselves.

Workers also find it difficult to upgrade their skills when working for clients who often share as little as possible about tasks to be done, meaning that is can be difficult to really understand what it is they are doing.

Perhaps most importantly, we have seen worrying signs of a ‘race to the bottom’. A Nigerian worker, for instance, told us:

“Most people, most Filipinos, they work for 50 cents. It’s so embarrassing. You’re a professional. You know how to do this job… She just wants to get a job. It’s really affecting those ones that know how to do the job”

In other words, digital workers had a keen sense that there were many other people around the world willing to do the work that they do, but for lower wages. This undoubtedly has a significant effect on lowering the wages that many workers receive. The perceived supply of labour far outstrips the perceived supply of it.

What should we be striving for?

What, then, can be done to improve the state of digital work for the millions being enrolled into it? How do we counter the structural transfer of risk and responsibility from firms onto precarious workers?

The strategies that both Guy Standing and I point to, recognize that there is no going back. We are never going to be able to recreate the ‘labourist’ model of the mid-20th century. We may never again see lifetime jobs. But, what is it that we should then be striving towards?

Firstly, we need appropriate data. Guy rightly noted that our current statistics are unfit for purpose, and we need data that more carefully measures, who, where, and what is happening in the digital economy.

Second, and relatedly, I pointed to the need for more transparency in the value chains of digital work. Over the last few decades, we have seen how the Fairtrade movement has shed light on previously hidden parts of commodity chains, encouraging companies to curb distasteful work practices in factories and farms. We could thus similarly imagine a ‘Fairwork’ movement to make sure that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are held accountable if digital sweatshops enter into their own virtual production networks.

Third, we could perhaps re-envision what digital ‘spaces’ of resistance might look like. Even though a lack of physical co-presence inhibits the ability of workers to identify one another, the same networks that are mediating their work can be harnessed to create digital picket-lines.

So, much in the same way that geographically co-present picket lines aim to disrupt the ability to conduct business as usual, digital ones could be formed to disrupt the digital presence of employers (think, for instance, of the ability to ‘Google-bomb’ the web-presence of employers).

These are also potentially fruitful conditions for the creation of some sort of transnational digital workers union or trade secretariat. This would need to be an organisation with more ambitious aims that the current Freelancers Union (which helps workers to navigate unstable networks of work rather than attempting to change them in any significant way). But none of this gets us past the issue that workers still end up competing with each other in digital markets to sell their labour power. There is a keen sense amongst workers that if they withdraw their labour, someone else on the other side of the world will quickly take their place.

Fourth, the geographically dispersed nature of digital work marketplace has also made it hard to regulate effectively. But it’s worth remembering that only a few countries in the West are home to the vast majority of clients, and it is potentially in those places that regulations could be enacted or enforced about how clients should treat, and interact with, their workers.

Think, for instance, of ensuring that public bodies like the Gangmasters Licensing Authority have a remit that includes digital work. Or Guy Standing, relatedly suggested requiring taskers to have written contracts, curbing the power of customer ratings, and banning exclusivity clauses. In short, we need the State to intervene if we want workers to have more bargaining power.

Finally, it is worth remembering that it isn’t the existence of marketplaces themselves that are creating demand for digital work. Marketplaces simply offer a bridge between the supply and demand and allow it to be realised. In doing so, they extract rents from every transaction and set key rules that govern how workers and clients interact with each other.

Alternative digital futures?

But other kinds of geographic bridging of the supply and demand for digital work are possible. Just as there have previously been both consumer and worker-led pressures to transact with cooperative building societies and supermarkets, we’re seeing the beginnings of moves to create and work with cooperatively owned digital platforms.

People like William in Nairobi deserve good jobs, and digital work has brought a lot of opportunities and benefits to thousands. Digital work also comes with a range of concerns for workers: most notably, the precariousness that faces digital workers all over the world, who are saddled with risk and responsibility that is shed by employers. But this state of affairs isn’t inevitable. We need to be doing more to understand how digital work practices are impacting people’s lives, and, ultimately, we need to be envisioning alternatives and strategies that might bring a fairer world of work into being.

You can find out more about Mark Graham’s research at his Oxford Internet Institute profile page.

[Banner image credit: Justin Morgan (cc)]

The “Digital Transformations of Work” article series is a result of the Oxford University Digital Transformations of Work Conference which took place at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, on 10 March 2016.

Part two: “DIGITAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF WORK: Technology, power & culture – what’s driving the digital transformation of work?” by Alex Wood

Part three: “DIGITAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF WORK: ‘Low income & high competition’ – digital jobs in a neoliberal age” by Amir Anwar


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Mark Graham

Mark Graham is an Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development. He tweets at @geoplace.

Read All Articles

Related Articles