The Global Gig Economy: Towards a Planetary Labour Market?
We are witnessing the emergence of a ‘planetary labour market’ for digital work. Building on a five-year study of digital work in some of the world’s economic margins, we show a planetary labour market does not do away with geography, it rather exists to take advantage of it. Digital technologies have been deployed in order to bring into being a labour market that can operate at a planetary scale, and has particular affordances and limitations that rarely bolster both the structural and associational power of workers.
Because of the rapid rise of digital work around the world, we ask in this paper whether we are seeing the emergence of a ‘planetary labour market’ in digital work. To answer this question, we outline the scalar and spatial changes that have been occurring in labour markets, review their implications for the balance of power between labour and capital, and advance some possible responses to ensure that we do not get trapped in a global race to the bottom in which there are constant downwards pressures on wages and working conditions.
The argument that we make here is largely conceptual. However, we illustrate our argument with examples from a five–year (2014–2018) study of digital work in some of the world’s economic margins. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 65 online platform workers in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, recruited from one of the world’s biggest online labour platforms, Upwork. We sought maximum diversity in our sample, and our respondents were characterised by a range of different attributes, such as number of hours worked on the platform, different types of work activities, and income earned. Most workers in our sample had multiple accounts on various platforms such as Freelancer.com, Fiverr.com, and Peopleperhour.com. We also recruited Upwork workers through social media (Facebook and LinkedIn) and snowballing. The primary sampling goal was to ensure a diversity of worker experiences. As such, this paper presents selected cases that indicate the existence of activities, issues, and concerns, rather than a representative view. Through the interviews we sought to understand the socio-economic background of workers, the nature and types of work done by these workers, career prospects, livelihood challenges, income, worker-worker and worker-client interactions, strategies to win bids, to stay competitive, to demand higher wages and negotiate working hours, and actions to avoid the various risks inherent to platform work. All the worker names have been changed.