Networked but commodified: digital labour in the remote gig economy

Research by Alex J. Wood, Mark Graham and others shows how gig economy platforms commodify labour in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Photo by Samuel Odey from Pexels.

Growing connectivity in the Global South is fuelling the rise of new outsourcing practices through digital platforms in the gig economy. There are now millions of workers in low- and middle-income countries doing jobs like data entry, transcription, and translation for clients who are usually located in rich countries on the other side of the world.

The economist Joan Robinson once remarked that even worse than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited at all. This is the dire situation faced by many African and Asian workers who find their countries mired by mass youth unemployment. Therefore, the global gig economy has the potential to provide workers with a welcome opportunity to earn much needed income. But the process of selling one’s labour can also be harmful when doing so is shorn of protections. Labour can thus be treated as just another commodity rather than as a human quality. As social scientist Karl Polanyi highlighted:

“labour power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity.

In a new research paper, based on years of research in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, we document how the gig economy is contributing to the further commodification of work, and why that isn’t good news for workers. Platforms are used by clients in rich countries to purchase the labour of workers in the Global South, aim to offer an ‘on-demand’ workforce made up of ‘online freelancers’ and ‘contractors.’ In order to provide this on-demand workforce these platforms seek to treat labour the same as the commodities bought and sold on digital marketplaces. This means allowing clients to end workers’ contracts at any time without notice, and to ‘fire them on the spot.’ As the CEO of one major international platform explained:

As an entrepreneur, I had this army of people I can hire on demand to do things for me… So I then thought to myself, why isn’t there an eBay of jobs?

Thus the absence of protective labour regulations is a key rationale of these platforms. This CEO went on to explain that:

We don’t get involved in telling people where to work or how to work or whatever, it’s literally, “It’s up to you, you can pick and choose whatever”... sort-of like a frictionless little marketplace, it really is up to you.

A further consequence of this attempt to treat workers the same as other commodities is that the work entails significant unpaid ‘work-for-labour’. Time spent on work-related activities such as breaks, training, job searching, and applying and waiting for work goes unpaid, even though such activities are inevitable consequences of the manner in which these platforms organize labour. We conducted a survey with 656 workers in Africa and Asia, and they revealed that an average of 16 hours was spent every week browsing, applying for, and reading about jobs.

Moreover, as these workers lived in countries with little public provision of healthcare, the framing of workers as freelance contractors also meant that few workers could access adequate healthcare.

A further consequence of commodification was the high levels of unregulated global competition which could put downward pressure on pay. The experiences of a Nigerian worker, Joseph, exemplified this common situation. Joseph* made a living from digital marketing and advertising, and told us how:

Immediately you see an offer being posted… you will see 50 proposals have been submitted.

The CEO of the major platform we interviewed, further explained that the Internet combined with rampant underemployment in the Global South had, in his view, lead to a positive driving down of pay:

There are 7.1 billion people on the planet, there are 2.4 billion people on the Internet… They’re what I call “PHDs”, poor, hungry, driven… They’re willing to work on any sort of job, right, a lot harder than maybe you or I are, for less money…it’s highly competitive and it changes dramatically as the Internet gets turned on in various countries... And those [unskilled] rates are going down because the more [workers there are], when you’re talking about unskilled jobs there’s almost no floor as to where those actual prices go.

Global gig economy platforms seek to create an army of extremely commodified labour shorn of protective regulations. These platforms have managed to avoid regulations by not just defining their workers as self-employed freelancers but also by framing themselves as technology companies rather than as employment agencies or outsourcing firms. As another platform CEO explained:

Every industry is waking up to discover it’s now a software business… I don’t think of us as an outsourcing business because… what we do is connect two entrepreneurs, we connect a small business entrepreneur in the West with a small business entrepreneur in the developing world and they just work it out amongst themselves to get something done.

Unfortunately, many governments seem to have accepted this argument. For example, an interview informant at the Nigerian Ministry of Communication Technology, responsible for the Nigerian government’s ‘Microwork for Job Creation’ initiative, explained that work terms and conditions were not something that needed regulating, as they were a:

function of supply and demand in the market… we let the free market dictate.

Unsurprisingly, there were labour regulations which would have provided these workers with some protections if they weren’t considered self-employed freelancers simply using the services of a technology company.

In the face of the seemingly intractable problems created by commodification, what are the ways forwards?

In a previous article we highlighted the potential for ‘freelancer unions’. In our research we found that workers are creating self-organized networks and communities in order to overcome their atomisation and the low trust environment created by platforms. Embedding themselves within these networks not only enables the gig economy to actually function but could, potentially, provide a foundation for such unions and the basis for a counter movement against commodification.

A previous paper from our project outlined how such efforts require a combination of efforts by workers, regulators, and even consumers and users to improve the conditions of platform work.

One potential approach is provided by the Fairwork Foundation which is an initiative to score every platform against five principles of fair work and display those scores in an annual league table. This could provide workers with a means of leverage by which to improve the quality of platform jobs by pressuring platforms and clients to improve conditions.

Workers in the global gig economy represent a future of work that may become a reality for much of the world. It is therefore crucial that we continuously look to ways of making that future one in which labour is decommodified.

* All names have been replaced with pseudonyms.

Alex J Wood and Mark Graham have published their paper ‘Networked but Commodified: The (Dis)Embeddedness of Digital Labour in the Gig Economy' co-authored with Vili Lehdonvirta, and Isis Hjorth, in the journal Sociology. Alex J. Wood is a sociologist of work and employment at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See more of his work at or follow him @tom_swing. Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See more of his work at or follow him @geoplace.