24 Mar 2017
A picture I took at a training programme for digital workers in Nairobi. The workers are being taught how to transcribe an audio file that says: “Nobody had any idea 30 years ago what the world was going to be like now, and how these tools were going to be used.”
When we use a product, a service, or even an algorithm that was brought into being with digital labour, there is no way to know whether an exhausted worker is behind it; whether they get laid off if they become sick or get pregnant; whether they are spending twenty hours a week just searching for work; how precarious their source of income is; or whether they are being paid an unfairly low wage.
I therefore want to propose a way of holding client firms in virtual production networks more accountable through the development of a ‘FairWork Foundation.’ The proposal operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world.
Today, there are 48 million workers globally who are registered on online labour platforms, cumulatively doing work that according to the World Bank consists of 5 billion dollars’ worth of transactions this year . We still know very little about where these workers are, what sorts of work they are doing, and – most importantly – the conditions under which they labour.
However, my research group at the Oxford Internet Institute, and a few others around the world, are starting to chip away at these gaps in knowledge. In my case, we are engaging in two multi-year, multi-continent research projects (geonet.oii.ox.ac.uk and oii.ox.ac.uk/projects/microwork-andvirtual-production-networks) which aim to better understand the benefits and risks that may be associated with digital work (here is an initial report and paper).
From our own research, and the research of others, it is clear that there are ample risks. Many workers have jobs characterized by long and irregular hours, intense work, low income, and tedium. The combination of highly commoditized work, and a global market for this work, means that many digital workers feel that people in other parts of the world will undercut them, and take their jobs if they request better working conditions or higher wages. Work also tends largely to be done outside of the purview of national governments, with very few clients paying attention to rules that are on the books in either their home countries or the worker’s home country. Lacking the ability to collectively gather and withdraw their labour, these workers increasingly need an effective way to improve working conditions.
Because transnational flows of commodities and labour frequently involve long, complex, mediated, and opaque production networks, a range of intermediaries have emerged to critically analyse working and production conditions in upstream nodes on supply chains. Consumer watchdog magazines like Which?, Consumer Reports, and Stiftung Warentest seek to reveal information that sellers of end-products often wish to conceal. Organizations involved in certification schemes (such as Fairtrade and The Rainforest Alliance) attempt to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to, and activist organisations like Sourcemap aim to increase informational transparency in supply chains.
The idea underpinning all of this work has been a belief that information and communication technologies (ICTs) could be used to not just facilitate the easy geographic movement of products and services, but also to facilitate a more transparent geographic flow of information about those products and services. If consumers or buyers have more information about products and production practices, then it becomes less likely that firms would be willing to engage in ethically dubious practices.
While consumers of products from companies like Starbucks and Cadburys have pressured those companies into ensuring that the entire chains of production are certified as Fairtrade, users of Google or Microsoft have no similar way of persuading those firms to behave ethically. Users of Facebook, Google, and other digital services, sites, apps, and algorithms currently have no idea if the workers that help to create and maintain those services are treated fairly or paid living wages. In many cases, users may be unaware that there are actually any human workers at all behind those services. But, the fact that the act of tracing production networks of digital services and products is a challenging task should not deter us from trying.
I have therefore put the below document together as a first step: hoping to outline what may be possible in a ‘FairWork Foundation’.
Graham, M. 2017. A FairWork Foundation. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.
If there is interest, any of these ideas can be further expanded upon. It is important to remember that many of the millions of digital workers who are embedded into global virtual production networks currently have little bargaining power. Their ability to collectively bargain is limited, and they are often not protected by existing rules and regulations. As ever more people come online looking for jobs, the prospects for workers collaborating instead of competing look bleak. A FairWork Foundation offers viable strategies to change that by pressuring employers to improve wages and working conditions.