What do we know about ‘online gig work’ in developing countries? Until recently, all I’d read about was the bizarre world of gold farming – gamers in East Asia (even prisoners in Chinese labour camps) playing to accumulate credits they could then sell on to lazy Western players. A new report from the Oxford Internet Institute filled me in on where the phenomenon has got to.
Online gig work is paid work allocated and delivered by way of internet platforms without an explicit or implicit contract for long-term employment. For instance, a job could consist of a temporary graphic design project, which itself might refer to a bundle of Photoshop tasks. These tasks could be any number of different things, including more mundane tasks such as data entry.
To find out how it works, the Oxford researchers ran 150 interviews, and a survey (online, natch) of 450 respondents. They also got access to anonymized data on one major online platform. Here’s what they found:
The commonest form of work is ‘double auction’, where both the worker and the “client” can solicit tasks and quote a price. The industry relies on algorithmic controls — such as ratings and reputation scores and automated tests — to build a ‘reputation rating’ for companies and workers.
These ratings are combined with work history (number of completed jobs, hours worked and total earnings) and test scores in order to rank workers. Clients advertise jobs, then platforms algorithmically filter more tasks towards the highest ranked workers, meaning that those with the best overall reputation are more likely to receive more work. Scores and reputation therefore act as a powerful system of labour control, with both rewards and risks for workers.
The new jobs definitely work for some people; here’s Angel from the Philippines:
“For me, it’s a high paying job, because now, I was able to afford an apartment, pay my own bills, my own internet connection, my own cable, paying for our own food, for my kids’ milk. That’s all on my own.”
Over half the respondents found the tasks stretching rather than just drudge work. But even the anonymity of online does not prevent discrimination:
‘Moses is a 26-year-old translator from the Nairobi slums who uses a digital gig work platform. He often changes the geographical location listed on his profile, explaining how the platform makes it hard given he’s a Kenyan. He says that identifying clients in gig-based work forces you to constantly realign your profile to fit the job description. As a result, many of Moses’s clients believe that he is based in Australia, just as they are unaware that he is a college dropout rather than a successful translator. The pronounced discriminatory practices Moses is met with means that he is constantly creating a persona in order to be able to win tasks. Moses and others like him say bowing down to discriminatory practices on digital gig work platforms is a commonplace necessity: “You have to create a certain identity that is not you. If you want to survive online you have to do that.”’
Unfortunately, the report doesn’t give any overall numbers for people working in this way, but one of the report’s authors, Mark Graham pointed me to a 2015 World Bank report that put the total figure at 48 million registered for work worldwide, of which about 10% are actually finding work. The Oxford report’s access to one platform bears out that picture – there is serious oversupply (see table) – more workers than jobs, which potentially spells bad news for wages and conditions. 94% of workers said they are not involved in any sort of labour union or worker association, and respondents frequently work over 70 or 80 hours a week for $3.50 per hour.
The gig economy was supposed to ‘disintermediate’ – putting northern clients directly in touch with southern online workers, but that didn’t last long. Because of the heavy role that reputational feedback scores play in online gig work platforms, work tends to flow to intermediaries/middlemen who already have a high score. These intermediaries then re-outsource that work, keeping a part of the client’s fee for themselves.
The report ends with some questions to those wishing to avoid this becoming a new form of cyber-slavery:
- Is it necessary to list nationality on profile pages (which makes discrimination easier)?
- 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 (eg in country of origin of the clients, which tend to be better regulated)?
- Will governments need to limit online gig work monopolies (‘positive network effects’ tend to lead to a few big players, rather than a competitive market)?
- How will governments support alternative forms of platform organisation (e.g. online cooperatively-owned platforms)?
- What online forms of voice could emerge?
- In what ways can existing groups (e.g. online networks, or freelancer unions) be used to promote solidarity?
- To what extent will companies be held accountable for poor working conditions?
It ends by proposing a ‘Fairwork certification program’, which seems like a no brainer for a place to start.
All in all, a fascinating glimpse into a new, largely invisible and booming segment of the labour market – young, tech savvy people in developing countries tapping away on their laptops into the small hours for clients they never see.