Digital labor market places impose a new balance of power

May 25, 2016

Workers at an electronics factory in Shenzhen, China.
Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA – The glue works under a Creative Commons License

Can we reverse the decreasing power of workers in a hyper-geographically mobile world of work? demand Marc graham.

Factories cannot operate, farms cannot produce, mines cannot be operated, supermarkets cannot be stocked, and call centers cannot take calls if workers do not come to work. . Even though bridges are often stacked against workers, the fundamental fact that workers can withdraw their work with strikes, and encourage others to do so with picket lines, has done a lot to improve working conditions across a range industries around the world.

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

Traditionally, a fundamental weakness of capital in its struggle against labor has been its need to be fixed in space. Employers need geographic locations where workers do their work. This is not to say that capital was not inherently much more mobile than labor. But, although jobs could be outsourced and offshored, these new production sites were often vulnerable to a workforce withdrawal.

Recognizing that as a group they could exercise significant bargaining power, many workers formed unions. Unions could enter into collective bargaining with employers to demand a greater share of the income generated by the work done by workers. Collective bargaining also allows workers to regulate how they are treated in the workplace. For example, grievance and discipline procedures have been developed to protect workers from management despotism. Because of the ever-present threat of withdrawal from the workforce, this collective bargaining tended to be much more effective for workers than individualized bargaining carried out by atomized workers. Unions were shown significantly increase the wages and working conditions of workers.

All of this is changing due to the advent of digital labor markets. Platforms like, and mediate the auctioning of work. Customers post jobs and workers bid on them. With a few colleagues I have spent the last few years study this phenomenon: interview around 120 digital workers in Africa and Asia who work in professions as diverse as programming, content creation, transcriptions and clickwork. We asked each of them how comfortable they felt about asking for a raise or better working conditions, and whether they had considered joining a union.

What we heard from many of them was that they felt extremely replaceable. The nature of most digital jobs means that workers all over the world are being pushed into the same market and are forced to compete on very short-term contracts: some only last a few hours. Digital workers in Kenya know that if they retire their jobs, Filipino workers can easily take their jobs. And Filipino workers also know that Indian workers can do their job if they refuse to work. Every worker on these digital platforms knows that there are many more to take their place.

Does this mean that digital work represents a transition towards a fundamentally post-union world? A world in which work is fundamentally characterized by competition rather than solidarity among workers? If we want to avoid a world in which competition among workers leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions, then I would say that there are three key strategies we should think about in order to correct the structural imbalance. current Power.

Networks instead of hierarchies

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

It is important to point out that although this organization promotes precarious self-employment (their website features articles like “Top 10 Signs You Were Destined To Become Independent‘), its efforts could nevertheless be useful in generating a collective identity among digital workers. Many workers also come together digitally on Facebook groups, sub-Reddits and other digital gathering points to chat, complain, share opportunities, and exchange knowledge. Like my colleague Alex Wood has demonstrated, these networks can be the springboard for successful activism to counter injustice in the workplace. Thus, in areas where unions or hierarchical collectives have little meaning, we can instead turn to networks.

Strategies for the digital age

However, while these efforts can be useful in generating a collective identity among digital workers, they alone may not tip the balance of power in their favor. A second strategy could therefore be to focus on effective and well-integrated trade union strategies in the digital age.

Some might argue that in a world of precarious short-term contracts, with workers around the world competing against each other, it is impossible to emulate the traditional strategies that make unions effective. But even if digital markets aren’t really fixed to a single geographic space, it can 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 can be used with a similar effect. This is usually most effective when targeting the most consumer-oriented companies in all value chains, which in turn involves understanding the virtual production networks of digital labor. We hold Apple responsible for the poor working conditions at Foxconn’s Chinese factories, and we hold Nike responsible if any of their shoes come from sweatshops. conditions in the way they source their labor.

In practice, this would involve using a tactical media approach to take control of the visibility of corporate-controlled stories. This means ensuring that problematic workplace practices are featured on Twitter and Instagram hashtags; on comments on Facebook pages; and on search engine results pages using ‘Google-bombardment‘.

Consumer-led activism

But if these types of strategies remove the ability of companies to evade responsibility for any problematic production practices, there is little they can do to prevent workers from competing in digital labor markets. So alongside digital picket lines, we need more consumer-led activism to support workers.

Consumer boycotts against companies that engage in the worst types of abuse often persuade companies to rethink the way they source products and services. But what we also probably need are organizations committed to measuring and certifying equity in production networks.

In the same way that the Fairtrade Foundation inspects and audits the production sites of products like coffee and chocolate, couldn’t we consider a Fairwork Foundation that ensures that employers of digital workers adhere to certain social and economic standards? ? This would allow service end users to express their unity with workers by choosing certified services, platforms, applications and websites.

Many have proclaimed that unions don’t make sense in our age of hyper-globalized digital work. And online work platforms are certainly designed to foster a sense of competition rather than solidarity among workers. While this presents somewhat bleak prospects for digital workers, there are still some strategies that can be used to advance the interests of worker collectives.

As more and more of the world’s population connect to the Internet and search for jobs, there is the potential for ever greater downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Yet it is rarely in the interests of workers to compete with each other, so let’s find ways to collaborate, join forces and build alliances.

We can do this by recognizing that employers and businesses, although geographically separate from workers, still have digital “locations” that can be challenged and disrupted. And we can do this by recognizing that although we are now in a tangled, hyper-mobile digital age, the fundamental fact remains that everything around us – applications, data, algorithms, content – is ultimately produced by workers: workers who will receive the support of users and consumers if only we could better understand how our actions impact the global networks of digital labor production. We have a long way to go as we seek to create a more just world of work.

Marc graham is Associate Professor and Principal Investigator at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

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

If you liked this blog, you might also be interested in our upcoming July / August issue of New Internationalist magazine that will take a special look at “The New Digital Titans”. And don’t miss our September issue either, which will ask: Unions of the 21st Century: Renewal or Bankruptcy?

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