Conference Paper by
Dr. Mohammad Amir Anwar and Prof. Mark Graham
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
The world of work is changing. Communications technologies and digital platforms have enabled some types of work to be theoretically delivered from anywhere in the world by anyone with a computer and an internet connection. According to the World Bank, there are now over 48 million people performing such online ‘crowdwork’ or ‘gig work’. This digitally-mediated work brings jobs to parts of the world traditionally characterised by low income and high unemployment rates. As such, it has been touted by governments, third-sector organisations and private sector, as a novel strategy of economic development that can provide ‘freedom’ and ‘flexibility’ to the unemployed, who might otherwise have few options available in their local labour markets.
Yet, as workers find themselves competing against a global labour pool, platform work has the potential to bring precarity, and vulnerability into the lives of workers. There is, thus, a need to move beyond anecdotes and focus on how crowdwork impacts the lives and livelihoods of some of those at the world’s economic margins who perform it. Drawing on three year study with fifty eight workers in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, we conducted semi-structured interviews with freelancers on one of the world’s biggest online job platforms. We selected our participants to represent a diversity of experience. Our interviews with participants were designed to gather in-depth information about the implications of digital work on workers’ lives and livelihoods, meanings and expectations they attach to digital work, challenges faced by workers and strategies adopted by workers to cope with some of the adverse impacts of this work. We draw from the job quality literature in order to examine the ways that freedom, flexibility, precarity and vulnerability are reshaping the lives of workers from a variety of backgrounds. Doing so ultimately allows us to suggest strategies at the worker-, platform-, and regulatory-scales that are designed to avoid some of the worst outcomes and amplify those that are most valued by workers.