14 May 2019

Digital Work in the Global South

In an interview, Professor Filipe Calvão discusses digital work’s challenges and opportunities and its impact on shaping policies and processes related to the future of work in the Global South and across the world. 

What is the importance of the Global South in the future of work?

The impact of digitalisation or automation in the Global South has been largely overlooked in the academic literature. This is all the more surprising, since in Africa and other parts of the Global South, work is increasingly mediated by global technology platforms and governed by automated algorithms. Given the prevalence of informal work and generalised access to robust data communication networks, these workers are on the brink of experiencing the impact of automated or digitally-enabled labour.

Unlike previous waves of job replacement or outsourcing, which impacted mainly agricultural and manufacturing jobs in developed economies, most human labour today is potentially automatable. Coupled with a growing workforce that is outpacing job creation and productivity gains, the next wave of automation brings specific challenges to the Global South, particularly for youth in vulnerable employment, and may even foreshadow a future of normalised joblessness. For these reasons, how the Global South is grappling with these transformations holds important lessons for discussions on the future of work. 

What is digital work and who are the digital workers in the Global South?

In its broadest definition, digital labour describes app-based, software-mediated work, and human labour performed alongside automated processes. It may include online clerical and data entry tasks, more sophisticated programming and coding work, or any labour activity that requires access to an online application. In that sense, digital work denotes temporary, contracted, or freelance work performed through global labour platforms powered by algorithms, from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to online ride-hailing apps. 

Some of the features of this flexible digital work have been present for over two decades, namely among IT professionals recruited for temporary projects away from their home country. However, the reliance on privately owned, algorithm-governed technology platforms that provide access to the labour market from anywhere in the world is a new phenomenon. The few available studies on digital work in the Global South help paint a provisional picture: these workers are relatively young and perform autonomous tasks under increasing social isolation; digital work can also reproduce gender inequalities of the offline world in the digital economy. One of the findings from my own research among Uber drivers in Africa, for example, reveals that this population is more educated, older, and coming from the formal sector in larger numbers than previously suggested. 

What are the challenges but also opportunities that digital work brings to the Global South?

If the future worker from the Global South hopes to find a job, it will likely be in the digital economy. Digital work is often described as a liberating experience unbound by the often exploitative terms of formal employment; and yet, it is also free from any kind of regulation and, by extension, protection. In fact, workers in the Global South are more prone to economic exclusion, sub-contracting, and decreased bargaining power. The pressure of a growing labour force may also exacerbate the mismatch between worker skills and those sought by the employer or recruiter. This raises significant problems about the terms of this working relationship: first, the workers are unable to decide fares, incentives, or income; second, workers have their every move subject to technologically-enabled forms of surveillance and data collection; third, unchecked algorithms may be used to condition workers’ actions, impose corporate targets and limit opportunities for mobility, or drive down workers’ pay; finally, platform companies may further erode an already fragile formal sector in the Global South by shifting risk to workers themselves or evading corporate social and fiscal responsibilities. 

In order to seize the potential of Africa’s demographic transition and emergent innovations in the world of labour, we should start by recognising the unequal access to skills and capital in the work performed across digital labour platforms, as well as the obstacles of monetising one’s work and the burden of owning or renting the resources needed for production in digital ecosystems. Finally, if labour arbitrage is largely conditioned by global technology platforms, it should be mentioned that workers are also taking advantage of modes of association and platform cooperativism around a new idea of digital commons – including by subverting and evading the control imposed by algorithms.

Find out more about Professor Calvão's Lunch Briefing on "Digital Work in the Global South".