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Digital work marketplaces impose a new balance of power

25-05-2016-Electronics-factory-in-Shenzhen-590.jpg [Related Image]
Workers in an electronics factory in Shenzhen, China. Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA - glue works under a Creative Commons Licence

Can we reverse the diminishing power of workers in a world of hyper-geographically mobile work? asks Mark Graham.

Factories can’t run, farms can’t produce, mines can’t be mined, supermarkets can’t be stocked, and call centres can’t accept calls if workers don’t go to work. Even though the decks are often stacked against workers, the basic fact that workers can withdraw their labour with strikes, and encourage others to do so with picket lines, has done much to improve working conditions in a range of industries around the world.

But in a world of globalized, digitized, and atomized work, we now have a fundamentally different balance of power.

Traditionally, a core weakness of capital in its struggle with labour was its need to be spatially fixed. Employers needed geographical sites in which workers did their work. This is not to say that capital wasn’t inherently much more mobile than labour. But, although jobs could be outsourced and offshored, those new sites of production were often vulnerable to a withdrawal of labour power. 

Recognizing that as a group they could wield significant bargaining power, many workers formed trade unions. Unions could engage in collective bargaining with employers to demand a greater share of returns generated by the work done by workers. Collective bargaining also enabled workers to regulate how they were treated in the workplace. For example, grievance and disciplinary procedures were developed to protect workers from managerial despotism. Because of the ever-present threat of a withdrawal of labour power, this collective bargaining tended to be far more effective for workers than individualized bargaining done by atomized workers. Unions have been shown to significantly increase the wages and conditions for workers. 

This is now all changing due to the advent of digital work marketplaces. Platforms like Upwork.com, Freelancer.com and Fiverr.com mediate the auctioning of work. Clients post tasks and workers bid on them. With some colleagues, I have spent the last few years studying this phenomenon: interviewing about 120 digital workers in Africa and Asia who do jobs as varied as programming, content creation, transcriptions and clickwork. We asked each one of them how comfortable they felt asking for a raise or for better working conditions, and whether they had considered joining a union.

What we heard back from many of them was that they felt extremely replaceable. The nature of much digital work means that workers from all over the world are thrust into the same marketplace and are forced to compete against each other on very short-term contracts: some lasting only a few hours. Digital workers in Kenya know that if they withdraw their labour, then workers in the Philippines can easily take their jobs. And Filipino workers likewise know that Indian workers can do their jobs if they were to refuse to work. Every worker on these digital platforms knows that there are many more out there to take his or her place. 

Does this mean that digital work represents a move to a fundamentally post-union world? A world in which work is fundamentally characterized by competition rather than solidarity between workers? If we want to avoid a world in which competition between workers leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, then I would argue that there are three key strategies that we should be thinking about to redress the current structural imbalance of power.

Networks instead of hierarchies

First, we need to strengthen efforts to build collective identities amongst digital workers. Many workers do not see the utility of unions, and many workers do not even see themselves as workers! Here there is a space for more groups like the so-called ‘Freelancers Union’.

It is important to point out that while that organization actually promotes precarious freelancing (their website features articles like ‘Top 10 signs you were destined to be a freelancer’), its efforts could nonetheless be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers. Many workers also digitally assemble on Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, and other digital points of assembly to chat, complain, share opportunities, and exchange knowledge. As my colleague Alex Wood has demonstrated, these networks can be the launchpad for successful activism to counter workplace injustice. Thus, in areas where hierarchical unions or collectives make little sense, we can instead look to networks.

Digital-era strategies

However, although these efforts could be useful in generating a collective identity amongst digital workers, they might not alone tip the balance of power in their favour. A second strategy could therefore be to focus on effective trade union strategies that are properly brought into the digital age.

Some might argue that in a world of precarious short-term contracts, with workers all over the world competing against each other, it is impossible to emulate traditional strategies that made trade unions effective. But even though digital markets are not really fixed to a single geographic space, it might be strategically useful for digital workers to think of them that way.

In the same way that a physical picket line disrupts business as usual, a digital picket line might be used to similar effect. This is usually most effective when targeting the most consumer-facing firms in any value chains, which in turn involves understanding the virtual production networks of digital work. We hold Apple responsible for poor working conditions in Chinese Foxconn factories and we hold Nike responsible if any of their shoes are sourced in sweatshops, so let’s use investigative journalism and radical transparency approaches to equally hold the Googles and Facebooks of the world to account for poor conditions in the ways that they source work. 

In practice, that would entail using a tactical media approach to take control of the visibility of corporate controlled narratives. This means making sure that problematic workplace practices are outlined on Twitter and Instagram hashtags; on comments on Facebook pages; and on search-engine results pages by using ‘Google-bombing’.

Consumer-led activism

But while these sorts of strategies remove the ability of companies to escape responsibility for any problematic production practices, they can do little to stop workers undercutting each other in digital work marketplaces. So, in tandem with digital picket lines, we need more consumer-led activism to support workers. 

Consumer boycotts of companies engaging in the worst sorts of abuses often persuade companies to rethink how they source products and services. But what we probably also need are organizations committed to measuring and certifying fairness in production networks. 

In much the same way that the Fairtrade Foundation inspects and audits sites of production of products like coffee and chocolate, couldn’t we envision a Fairwork Foundation that ensures that employers of digital workers adhere to certain social and economic standards? Doing so would allow end-users of services to express unity with workers by choosing services, platforms, apps and websites that have been certified. 

Many have proclaimed that unions make little sense in our era of hyper-globalized digital work. And online work platforms are certainly designed to foster a sense of competition rather than solidarity between workers. Although this presents a somewhat bleak outlook for digital workers, there remain some strategies that can be employed to further the interests of worker collectives.

As ever more of the world’s population connects to the internet and looks for jobs, there is the potential for ever more downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Yet it is rarely in workers’ interests to compete against each other, so let’s find ways of collaborating, joining forces and building alliances.

We can do that by recognizing that employers and firms, despite being geographically separated from workers, still have digital ‘locations’ that can be challenged and disrupted. And we can do that by recognizing that even though we are now in an entangled, hyper-mobile digital age, the basic fact remains that everything around us - the apps, the data, the algorithms, the content - is ultimately produced by workers: workers who will receive support from users and consumers if only we could better understand how our actions reverberate through global production networks of digital work. There remains much we can do as we seek to bring a fairer world of work into being.

Mark Graham is Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

The author would like to thank Alex Wood for his helpful comments on an earlier draft, and the IDRC and European Research Council for research funding.

If you liked this blog you may also be interested in our forthcoming July/August issue of New Internationalist magazine which will take a special look at ‘The New Digital Titans’. And look out too for our September issue, which will ask: 21st-century trade unions: renewal or bust?

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