Networked but Commodified: The (Dis)Embeddedness of Digital Labour in the Gig Economy

I have a new article out with some colleagues:

Wood, A., Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, A., and Hjorth, I. 2019. Networked but Commodified: The (Dis)Embeddedness of Digital Labour in the Gig Economy. Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038519828906

The piece came out of a project that I led on Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, which then turned into my current five-year project on Changing Connectivities and Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Knowledge Economy.

In the paper we discuss how outsourcing companies avoid responsibilities by presenting themselves as technology companies. We show how workers based in the Global South but hired by clients in the Global North are at risk of being fired on the spot and have limited access to healthcare. Using a large-scale survey, we show how platform workers spend an average of 16 hours a week of their own time searching for jobs, training or waiting for work. However, despite clear “commodification” of this workforce, informal local networks are being increasingly used by workers to re-outsource tasks among their own friends and family.

Summary

This article investigates the (dis)embeddedness of digital labour within the remote gig economy. We use interview and survey data to highlight how platform workers in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are normatively disembedded from social protections through a process of commodification. Normative disembeddedness leaves workers exposed to the vagaries of the external labour market due to an absence of labour regulations and rights. It also endangers social reproduction by limiting access to healthcare and requiring workers to engage in significant unpaid ‘work-for-labour’. However, we show that these workers are also simultaneously embedded within interpersonal networks of trust, which enable the work to be completed despite the low-trust nature of the gig economy. In bringing together the concepts of normative and network embeddedness, we reconnect the two sides of Polanyi’s thinking and demonstrate the value of an integrated understanding of Polanyi’s approach to embeddedness for understanding contemporary economic transformations.

Related Pieces

Wood, A., Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, A., and Hjorth, I. 2019. Good Gig, Bad Big: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy. Work, Employment and Society. 33(1). 56-75 https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017018785616

Graham, M. and Anwar, M.A. 2018. Digital Labour In: Digital Geographies Ash, J., Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski, A. (eds.). Sage: London. 177-187.

Graham, M., Hjorth, I., Lehdonvirta, V. 2017. Digital labour and development: impacts of global digital labour platforms and the gig economy on worker livelihoods. Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research. 23 (2) 135-162.

Mark Graham

Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the OII, a Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, a Research Fellow at Green Templeton College, and an Associate in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. He leads a range of research projects spanning topics between digital labour, the gig economy, internet geographies, and ICTs and development.