Then, there is the problem of massive labor oversupply. Unlike for Uber or TaskRabbit, which operate in a given city with a constrained supply of workers, the pool of labor for such digital work is for all intents and purposes infinite. One contingent-work platform reported having nine times as many workers as necessary. A Filipino virtual assistant described the inevitable result: “I first set [my hourly rate] at $8, because that’s what my previous client was paying me,” the assistant told the researchers. “But I found it quite difficult to find jobs. So I set it at $4. And I think I even set it at $3.50 currently. So, I mean, if you don’t get a lot of invitations, you don’t have any other choice but to lower down your expectations, I guess.”
Still, the researchers said that deflated wages, disempowered workers, and scant labor protections were not inevitable features of the online gig economy. Digital workers could organize, or could own and control their own labor platforms, for instance. Certification schemes and stronger regulatory protections might also help.
I spoke with Mark Graham, a professor of internet geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, about his and his colleagues’ research into this burgeoning world of work—and how to create policies to protect such workers, too. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Annie Lowrey: Could you tell me little bit about how you found these workers?
Mark Graham: First of all, we picked six countries that we wanted to study—three in southeast Asia, three in sub-Saharan Africa. We wanted to find workers who lived in these countries who were doing work on online gig platforms. Basically, we went on the platforms and created jobs. The job was: “We’re researchers who are studying this topic, can we talk to you?” That was our foot in the door. Then, some people we spoke to said, “You should speak to my cousin. He also does this work.”
Lowrey: In the paper you mention that this work is growing rapidly right now—something like 25 percent per year. How long has it been available?
Graham: There have certainly been platforms that have allowed people to work from anywhere, for anywhere, for some time. I remember there was a site, I think it still exists, guru.com, that allowed people to outsource little programming tasks.
What’s interesting is that now, we have so many people getting online at the moment and most of that growth in access is coming from the developing word. A lot of folks are coming online from low- and middle-income countries. While the idea of a website where you could outsource a gig isn’t that new, it’s that combined with the fact that we’re getting so many people who are willing to do lower-wage tasks coming online. That’s fueling some of the massive growth we’re seeing.
Lowrey: In some cases, it seems like a great deal for both sides, right? You’re in a high-income country with high labor costs and you want to get some transcription done. You’re hiring a worker from a low-income country where the wage seems competitive, even high. But you guys found a kind of wage deflation that people experience, due to the ever-increasing size of the labor pool.