New Report: Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work at the Global Margins

The cartogram depicts countries as circles sized according to dollar inflow during March 2013 on a major online labour platform. The shading of the inner circle indicates the median hourly rate published by digital workers in that country. See the report for details.

The growth of online gig work—paid work allocated and delivered by way of internet platforms without a contract for long-term employment—has been welcomed by economic development experts, and the world’s largest global development network is promoting its potential to aid human development. There are hopes that online gig work, and the platforms that support it, might catalyse new, sustainable employment opportunities by addressing a mismatch in the supply and demand of labour globally.

Some of the world’s largest gig work platforms have also framed their business models as a revolution in labour markets, suggesting that they can help lift people out of poverty. Similarly, many policymakers expect that regions like Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia can capitalise on this digitally mediated work opportunity as youth-to-adult unemployment rates hit historic peaks. More broadly, it has been suggested that online gig work will have structural benefits on the global economy, such as raising labour force participation and improving productivity.

Against this background, a new report by Mark Graham, Vili Lehdonvirta, Alex Wood, Helena Barnard, Isis Hjorth, and David Peter Simon, “The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins” [PDF] highlights the risks alongside the rewards of online gig work. It draws on interviews and surveys, together with transaction data from one of the world’s largest online gig work platforms, to reveal the complex and sometimes problematic reality of this “new world of work”.

While there are significant rewards to online gig work, there are also significant risks. Discrimination, low pay rates, overwork, and insecurity all need to be tackled head-on. The report encourages online gig work platforms to further develop their service, policymakers to revisit regulation, and labour activists to examine organising tactics if online gig work is to truly live up to its potential for human development, and become a sustainable situation for many more workers.

The final section of the report poses questions for all stakeholders regarding how to improve the conditions and livelihoods of online gig workers, particularly given how these platforms have become disembedded from the norms and laws that normally regulate labour intermediaries. Specific questions that are discussed include:

  • Is it necessary to list nationality on profile pages? Will online gig workers receive formal employment contracts in the future?
  • What formal channels could exist for workers to voice their issues? Where should governments regulate online gig work in the future?
  • Will governments need to limit online gig work monopolies? And how will governments support alternative forms of platform organisation?
  • What online forms of voice could emerge for workers, and in what ways can existing groups be leveraged to promote solidarity?
  • To what extent will companies be held accountable for poor working conditions? Do platforms need a Fairwork certification program?

The report also offers suggestions alongside the questions, drawing on relevant literature and referencing historical precedents.

Read the full report: Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., Wood, A., Barnard, H., Hjorth, I., Simon, D. P. (2017) The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At The Global Margins. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.

Read the article: Graham, M., Hjorth, I. and Lehdonvirta, V. (2017) Digital Labour and Development: Impacts of Global Digital Labour Platforms and the Gig Economy on Worker Livelihoods. Transfer. DOI: 10.1177/1024258916687250

The report is an output of the project “Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia”, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), grant number: 107384-001.

Investigating virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia

Ed: You are looking at the structures of ‘virtual production networks’ to understand the economic and social implications of online work. How are you doing this?

Mark: We are studying online freelancing. In other words this is digital or digitised work for which professional certification or formal training is usually not required. The work is monetised or monetisable, and can be mediated through an online marketplace.

Freelancing is a very old format of work. What is new is the fact that we have almost three billion people connected to a global network: many of those people are potential workers in virtual production networks. This mass connectivity has been one crucial ingredient for some significant changes in how work is organised, divided, outsourced, and rewarded. What we plan to do in this project is better map the contours of some of those changes and understand who wins and who doesn’t in this new world of work.

Ed: Are you able to define what comprises an individual contribution to a ‘virtual production network’—or to find data on it? How do you define and measure value within these global flows and exchanges?

Mark: It is very far from easy. Much of what we are studying is immaterial and digitally-mediated work. We can find workers and we can find clients, but the links between them are often opaque and black-boxed. Some of the workers that we have spoken to operate under non-disclosure agreements, and many actually haven’t been told what their work is being used for.

But that is precisely why we felt the need to embark on this project. With a combination of quantitative transaction data from key platforms and qualitative interviews in which we attempt to piece together parts of the network, we want to understand who is (and isn’t) able to capture and create value within these networks.

Ed: You note that “within virtual production networks, are we seeing a shift in the boundaries of firms”—to what extend to you think we seeing the emergence of new forms of organisation?

Mark: There has always been a certain spatial stickiness to some activities carried out by firms (or within firms). Some activities required the complex exchanges of knowledge that were difficult to digitally mediate. But digitisation and better connectivity in low-wage countries has now allowed many formerly ‘in-house’ business processes to be outsourced to third-parties. In an age of cloud computing, cheap connectivity, and easily accessible collaboration tools, geography has become less sticky. One task that we are engaged in is looking at the ways that some kinds of tacit knowledge that are difficult to transmit digitally offer some people and firms (in different places) competitive advantages and disadvantages.

This proliferation of digitally mediated work could also be seen as a new form of organisation. The organisations that control key work marketplaces (like oDesk) make decisions that shape both who buyers and sellers are able to connect with, and the ways in which they are able to transact.

Ed: Does ‘virtual work’ add social or economic value to individuals in low-income countries? ie are we really dealing with a disintermediated, level surface on a global playing field, or just a different form of old exploitation (ie a virtual rather than physical extraction industry)?

Mark: That is what we aim to find out. Many have pointed to the potentials of online freelancing to create jobs and bring income to workers in low-income countries. But many others have argued that such practices are creating ‘digital sweatshops’ and facilitating a race to the bottom.

We undoubtedly are not seeing a purely disintermediated market, or a global playing field. But what we want to understand is who exactly benefits from these new networks of work, and how.

Ed: Will you be doing any network analysis of the data you collect, ie of actual value-flows? And will they be geolocated networks?

Mark: Yes! I am actually preparing a post that contains a geographic network of all work conducted over the course of a month via oDesk (see the website of the OII’s Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality Group for more).

Mark Graham was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Mark Graham is a Senior Research Fellow at the OII. His research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development.