The future of work: Is the gig economy working for developing countries?

18 Dec 2017 10:15h - 11:45h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 12th Internet Governance Forum]

In the words of moderator Mr Hernan Galperin, Research Associate Professor, University of Southern California, the session had the goal to ‘examine how automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and gig economy platforms are changing the nature of work in the developing world’.

First speaker, Mr Sunil Johal, Policy Director, the Mowat Centre, offered the perspective of a policy practitioner. He outlined the unpredictability of the pace and scale of technological changes, the increasing need for international coordination in this area, and the necessity of rebalancing worker-firm dynamics. In his opinion governments and other stakeholders should focus on the following goals.

  1. More services delivered digitally
  2. Bigger focus on outcomes
  3. Further emphasis on evaluation
  4. Larger customisation and flexible design of programs
  5. Greater integration of programmes with other levels of service and other partners

Mr Pablo Bello, Executive Director, Interamerican Association of Telecommunications Operators (ASIET), said the most important accomplishments in labor rights were achieved through clashes, led by unions. Now that union power is being eroded, one very important question is: how are workers to defend their rights?  This reasoning led him to state that ‘maybe the gig economy is good for the market, but not so much for society’. We must, therefore, create a new global framework for the digital era in which workers can protect their rights

Ms Alison Gillwald, Executive Director,  Research  ICT Africa, presented the findings of a survey concerning technology and microwork conducted in eight African countries. The survey shows that there is much less activity happening than what platforms promote. The most interesting finding is that the digital inequality evident in microwork in Africa reflects inequalities that exist not only at access level, but also (and more importantly), in the skill levels. Even if the jobs offered are mainly unskilled, many workers do not have the knowledge to submit applications.

Ms Mona Badran, Associate Professor, Cairo University, suggested that increasing economic opportunities for Arab women would increase the region’s GDP by ‘about 47%’. After listing the barriers to such development (not just lack of access and affordability, but also gendered social norms), she discussed two ways in which the technological revolution could help narrow the gender gap in the Middle East. First, through further automation of domestic work. Second, and more importantly, because it enables remote, more flexible, work arrangements.

Ms Jackie O’Neill, Senior researcher of technologies for emerging markets, Microsoft India, discussed the key findings of her team’s research on Amazon Mechanical Turk and Ola workers. Although they are very different crowd-works, workers face the same problem, because their work is mediated by private digital platforms. This relationship raises two issues: reduced autonomy and global competition among individual service providers. The former means that, despite the discourse of greater flexibility, workers actually have to adapt to the schedules of customers. For the latter, there are several barriers that prevent crowd workers in developing countries from earning a living wage.

In her research on platform-mediated work, Ms Helani Galpaya, Chief Executive Officer, LIRNEasia, identified, in platform-mediated work, three broad categories of workers, classified by earning:  less than $0.01 per job, around $5, and between $300 and $500. In all cases, getting paid is the biggest issue, as both tax collection and banking systems only recognise formal employment.

Mr Vigneswara Ilavarasan, Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Elaborated on the topic of the future of work in India. He said that although automation will take its toll on Indian jobs, one must bear in mind that close to 75% of enterprises in India do not have electricity. Furthermore, in recent declarations the country’s Minister of Transportation warned companies that driverless cars would be forbidden. Facts like these make Ilavarasan more optimistic about the impacts of technology in the Indian labour market.

Lastly, Mr Valerio de Stefano, Professor of Labour Law, KU Leuven University, Provided a legal outlook on the matter. He listed two myths about how the gig economy can hamper workers’ rights: that most people use it as a source of extra income and that platforms offer independent contractor schemes. In reality, many workers rely solely on gigs to earn a living, and mediating platforms have many ways to assert control over them. To counter these narratives, he said we must promote the fact that workers’ rights apply to self-employed persons.

The ensuing Q&A covered questions on the role of governments and companies in data governance, whether there are inherent emancipatory components in the concept of sharing economy, and what should governments prioritise: traditional social protection or the creation of innovative working arrangements.

By Guilherme Cooper Vicente