In the final article of a three-part series exploring “Digital Transformations of Work”, Amir Anwar of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses the impact of digital work platforms such as Upwork on working lives, and debunks the idea that digital jobs are an easy solution to poverty.

60% of Special Economic Zones in India are being built for IT activities. Yet employment in these zones is accessible only to those who are already educated and skilled - not the majority of the poor.

60% of Special Economic Zones in India are being built for IT activities. Yet employment in these zones is accessible only to those who are already educated and skilled – not the majority of the poor. Image: Andrea Anthony (cc)

The nature of jobs and work activities is rapidly transforming, largely made possible by technological and organisational changes in capitalism since the World War II. The frequency of crises in capitalism has increased since the advent of neoliberalism and there is a marked ascendency of capital over labour. Rising unemployment in many of the developing countries is a major concern.

In the face of increasing uncertainty over finding work opportunities, workers are encouraged by international development organisations to look for self-employment. Furthermore, with the emergence of online outsourcing, the possibility of finding work may have increased, but not for all. The emergence of digital jobs and push towards self-employment has important implications for the future of work and workers.

Digital jobs: the great divide

The advancements made in the information and communications technology (ICT) have created digital work opportunities, albeit not available to all and with different outcomes. Most of the opportunities are suited for people who have tertiary education and exclude the poor and illiterate.

In my own research on Special Economic Zones in India, it was found that these zones are set up mainly for IT sector activities (60% zones are being built for various kinds of IT activities). Therefore, the employment these zones generate is meant for the educated and skilled work force mainly from the urban areas and not suited for the majority of the poor in the countryside.

Thus, the claims made by international organisations such as the World Bank and UN that digital jobs could provide necessary employment and a solution for poverty reduction in different parts of the world is misguided. So, can self-employment be an alternative to rising unemployment in developing countries as the workforce struggle to find meaningful work? The answer is not straight forward.

Self-employment: choice or necessity?

A little over half of all workers in the developing world are already self-employed. This is particularly true for the Sub-Saharan African countries, where there is increasing prevalence of women and youth in self-employed jobs. Yet, most are less satisfied than waged employees. This points to the fact that self-employment among these workers is not necessarily a choice.

“self-employment among these workers is not necessarily a choice”

At the same time, ongoing research at the Oxford Internet Institute, has found that self-employed digital workers welcome greater independence offered by digital work platforms such as Upwork. For example, workers finding outsourced work through digital work platforms can in theory perform work from anywhere and anytime.

The downside of this type of work is the economic rewards associated with it are often very low. In the Philippines, for example, the majority of workers working through online platforms earn only a few dollars a month.

Neoliberalism & the “race to the bottom”

The emergence of digital work platforms such as Upwork has great implications not just for self-employment but also for future of work. There is a concern among scholars that that digital work platforms are attracting millions of unemployed workers but hardly eliminate their deep existential insecurities, largely a result of neoliberalism.

Furthermore, these platforms enable a ‘race to the bottom’. Low income and high competition are the main problems among self-employed and digital workers and the result is a very segmented labour market. This has far reaching implications for the labour rights and collective action. What can be done?

“Currently, regulatory frameworks are weak and companies are hardly held responsible for their actions.”

Companies, like Upwork and Uber, absolve themselves of any responsibilities as an employer and push the risks on the back of workers. The nature of the digital work platforms is such that they are not territorially embedded and hence can easily avoid national regulations and control.

Therefore, the main issue is about curbing the power of capital. We need stricter regulations of these firms both in the country where they are headquartered and in the countries where they operate. Currently, regulatory frameworks are weak and companies are hardly held responsible for their actions.

On the contrary, multi-national firms have been suing countries around the world, who have failed to respect their investments agreements. Poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa struggling to attract investment capital will find it increasingly difficult and less attractive to do so in light of the above. However, regional blocs such as Common Market for Eastern Southern Africa which would have higher bargaining power than individual countries could be used as a platform to negotiate the terms of entry for firms not just at the country level but at regional level.

Also, there needs to be alternative strategies to the digital work platforms. For example, creation of jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, with better wages and welfare support for workers both from the firms and the government can be an ideal way to make these platforms less attractive for the unemployed. This will also ensure that workers will have some sort of collective social identity and hence the ability to organise for their rights.

Finally, there needs to be social awareness programmes that highlight the benefits and harms of working through these platforms to the workers, since these platforms, right now, are commodifying labour and contributing towards the fragmentation of the labour markets. This is not going to be an easy task.

[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 one: “DIGITAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF WORK: Digital work & the global precariat” by Mark Graham

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


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Amir Anwar

Amir is a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focus is on the political economy of neoliberal globalisation in the Global South, mainly in India and Africa, with a particular interest on the growth of knowledge economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and its developmental impacts.

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