The remaking of working classes: digital labour platforms and workers’ struggles in the Global South

Authors:
Ruth Castel-Branco University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Search for other papers by Ruth Castel-Branco in
Current site
Google Scholar
Close
and
Hannah J. Dawson University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Search for other papers by Hannah J. Dawson in
Current site
Google Scholar
Close
Full Access
Get eTOC alerts
Rights and permissions Cite this article

This themed issue explores the impact of digital labour platforms on the conditions of work and social reproduction in the Global South. The collection of articles – most of which derive from research undertaken by the Future of Work(ers) research group, led by the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand – profile case studies from Argentina, Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. The case studies focus on location-based platforms in food delivery, e-hailing, e-commerce and beauty and spa work. The collection of articles explores two broad and overlapping themes. The first is how platform business models are redefining the work process and the conditions of work. Here, labour process theory is particularly relevant because it allows us to identify both the points of value production and the sources of working-class power (). The second is the transformative possibilities and limitations of emerging forms of worker organisation. Here the power resources approach is especially useful because it allows us to analyse the extent to which organisations can leverage sources of power to transform the conditions of work and social reproduction. Ultimately, the contributions illustrate that the impact of digital technologies on the world of workers is neither predetermined nor linear. Rather it is shaped by struggle, the terms of which are themselves contingent.

Abstract

This themed issue explores the impact of digital labour platforms on the conditions of work and social reproduction in the Global South. The collection of articles – most of which derive from research undertaken by the Future of Work(ers) research group, led by the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand – profile case studies from Argentina, Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. The case studies focus on location-based platforms in food delivery, e-hailing, e-commerce and beauty and spa work. The collection of articles explores two broad and overlapping themes. The first is how platform business models are redefining the work process and the conditions of work. Here, labour process theory is particularly relevant because it allows us to identify both the points of value production and the sources of working-class power (Kenny and Webster, 2021). The second is the transformative possibilities and limitations of emerging forms of worker organisation. Here the power resources approach is especially useful because it allows us to analyse the extent to which organisations can leverage sources of power to transform the conditions of work and social reproduction. Ultimately, the contributions illustrate that the impact of digital technologies on the world of workers is neither predetermined nor linear. Rather it is shaped by struggle, the terms of which are themselves contingent.

Over the past decade, we have seen the proliferation of digital labour platforms across the globe, facilitated by cheap technologies like cloud computing. While the bulk of investment and revenue is still concentrated in a handful of companies registered in the Global North, a growing proportion of platforms now stem from the Global South (ILO, 2021). In Africa alone, locally registered platform companies increased by 37 per cent between 2018 and 2019, with South Africa leading the pack, closely followed by Nigeria and Kenya (Webster and Masikane, 2020). This shift has been welcomed by African governments who hope that platforms will drive a digital structural transformation and generate much needed employment in the context of widespread un(der)employment (African Union, 2020). To attract foreign investors, governments have offered generous incentives including exemptions from labour regulations and fiscal benefits. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that platforms have not led to the kind of digital structural transformation that governments had hoped for. In fact, some argue that platforms have entrenched Africa’s subaltern position, as a site of extraction of natural resources, cheap labour and profits (Anwar and Graham, 2022). Ultimately, whether platforms can drive a digital structural transformation that benefits the working classes will hinge on whether they can generate decent work and strengthen public provisioning.

This themed issue explores the impact of digital labour platforms on the conditions of work and social reproduction in the Global South. The collection of articles – most of which derive from research undertaken by the Future of Work(ers) research group, led by the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand – profile case studies from Argentina, Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. The case studies focus on location-based platforms in food delivery, e-hailing, e-commerce and beauty and spa work. The collection of articles explores two broad and overlapping themes. The first is how platform business models are redefining the work process and the conditions of work. Here, labour process theory is particularly relevant because it allows us to identify both the points of value production and the sources of working-class power (Kenny and Webster, 2021). The second is the transformative possibilities and limitations of emerging forms of worker organisation in the (re)making of working classes (Silver, 2003). Here the power resources approach is especially useful because it allows us to analyse the extent to which organisations can leverage sources of power to transform the conditions of work and social reproduction. The following sections offer an overview of some of the key insights from this collection of articles.

A new business model? Outsourcing and algorithmic management in the platform economy

Broadly speaking, there are two types of digital labour platforms that mediate the exchange of labour: location-based and web-based platforms. This themed issue focuses on the former as workers are generally geographically tethered and thus presumably better placed to claw back concessions from capital. As the articles in this collection highlight, location-based platforms are not homogeneous. Indeed, they can vary widely depending on the context, the sector and the company. Nevertheless, they tend to share some common characteristics. The first is that digital labour platforms are usually registered as tech intermediaries rather than employers. In the absence of clear regulations, the default position has been to classify platform workers as independent contractors, absolving companies of the responsibility to guarantee labour or social protections. As Gayatri Nair and Jennifer Divyadarshi (2023) highlight in ‘Unexceptional neoliberalism and the future of work: constrained enterprise and worker subjectivities in the gig economy of India’, workers are often drawn to platforms by the promise of autonomy and flexibility associated with ‘self-employment’ and the appearance of formality and respectability offered by digital mediation. The latter is particularly important for subaltern groups such as lower caste women in the beauty sector, who hope that digital mediation can offer some protection from discrimination. However, workers soon discover that they have little de facto autonomy over their labour.

The second common characteristic is the use of algorithmic management to impose levels of labour control that Frederick Taylor (2003), the engineer of scientific management, could have only dreamt of. In ‘“Customer is king”: gig work in a small South African city and the varieties of digital control and workers’ responses’, Crispen Chinguno (2023) illustrates how platform companies use algorithmic management to make seemingly automated decisions about when, where, and how workers perform their tasks. For instance, food delivery workers receive automated instructions from platforms on their mobile devices, specifying pickup and drop-off locations along with GPS-guided routes, which they are expected to follow. Once the food is delivered, the platform collects rating data from customers, who have the power to arbitrarily discipline workers through what Nair and Divyadarshi define as ‘gamification’. The association of tips with the rating system further entrenches labour discipline. As Chinguno illustrates, while tips enable workers to subsidise their meagre incomes, they shift the responsibility for workers’ social reproduction to drivers and customers. Ultimately, the individualisation of income determination isolates workers, intensifies competition, undermines collective solidarity and reinforces hierarchies along the lines of race and gender.

The racialised and gendered nature of algorithmic insecurity is also taken up by Lucas Souza (2023) in ‘The work of food couriers in Rio de Janeiro and digital labour platforms: the paths of precarisation’. In addition to meagre wages, long working hours and arbitrary forms of labour control, delivery drivers are exposed to physical insecurity. Black workers in particular, are subjected to police violence. Furthermore, Souza’s historically-grounded study challenges the notion that digital labour platforms offer a pathway for the formalisation of historically informal activities. Souza shows that the platformisation of delivery services has resulted in the further casualisation of work, as jobs previously governed by employment contracts and paid on the basis of time worked, are replaced by a task-based system under the guise of self-employment. As platforms become hegemonic, delivery drivers have little choice but to join them. However, this should not be interpreted as a voluntary decision. How platform workers perceive their condition is shaped by their personal histories. Souza differentiates between seasoned delivery drivers who perceive of their work as a profession, those who joined the platform when they lost their jobs and hope to transition out of delivery work as soon as they can, and those who joined straight out of school and see delivery work as a stepping-stone to a better position elsewhere. Ultimately, their past work experience informs their aspirations and can shape their (political) responses.

What is important is that behind the elusive control of algorithmic management are human beings, who are responsible for coding and feeding the algorithm. In ‘The labour process and workers’ rights at Mercado Libre: hiding exploitation through regulation in the digital economy’, Maurizio Atzeni (2023) shows how warehouse workers in the e-commerce sector are subjected to a combination of algorithmic management and discretionary human management. Handheld digital devices not only provide workers with precise instructions for each step of the production process but also enable managers to assess worker performance and assign corresponding scores, with devastating consequences for worker health and safety. Atzeni further shows how performance management tools have intensified labour control, contributed to a competitive work environment, increased turnover rates and undercut worker power. When combined with labour brokering, businesses maintain a large part of their workforce as part-time, casual employees undermining the power of trade unions. In response, trade unions have doubled down to protect the privileges of an increasingly small group of core workers, further contributing to the dualisation of the labour force. Amid a widening representation gap, bottom-up organisations have emerged to represent the interests of casualised workers. The relation between emerging forms of organisation and established trade unions is discussed further in the following section.

The relationship between emerging forms of organisation and established trade unions

Despite the rise of digital Taylorism, there has been an intensification of platform worker protest across the globe. In the Global North, trade unions have played a more prominent role in defending platform workers’ interests. In the Global South, the representation gap has been filled by various forms of self-organisation, from mutual aid groups to worker-owned cooperatives, to associations. In ‘Varieties of platform unionism: a view from the Global South on workers’ power in the digital economy’, Stefan Schmalz et al (2023) point to a continuum of relationships between self-organised groups and trade unions, from autonomous associations, to cooperation, hybridisation and integration. Drawing on the power resources approach, the authors argue that the existence of a large reserve army of labour and low barriers to entry has undermined workers’ structural power in the platform economy. Meanwhile, the absence of regulations means that workers have limited institutional power. However, based on two case studies in Argentina and Uganda, the authors show how platform workers have been able to mobilise associational and societal power to claw back concessions from capital. By allying with established trade unions, self-organised groups have been able to leverage unions’ institutional power, resources and experience to strengthen their bargaining position vis-a-vis platform companies. However, if alliances are to be sustained, the authors argue, trade unions must be open to experimenting with new structures, strategies and tactics.

Immanuel Ness (2023) is less optimistic about the possibilities of self-organisation. While new forms of worker organisation – worker centres, syndicalist organisations, unaffiliated unions, and even NGOs – have played an important role in addressing the immediate needs of marginalised groups including (undocumented) migrant workers, casualised workers and workers in small and dispersed establishments, their transformative power is highly uneven. This demands that we ask the question, he argues: ‘Why is it that the weakest labour organisations with the fewest resources organise highly exploited workers, but the strongest organisations do not?’ Ultimately, Ness concludes, if we are to transform the conditions of work and social reproduction in the platform economy, established trade unions must move to organise precarious working classes.

However, as the article ‘Building the car while driving it: organising platform workers in the e-hailing sector in Kenya’ by Ruth Castel-Branco et al (2023) details, organising precarious workers is not anymore straightforward for established trade unions than for self-organised groups. This Theory into Practice article, co-written with the deputy general secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, details the fits and starts as union organisers attempt to engage the myriad of associations, cooperatives and welfare groups that are active in mobilising workers in the platform economy in Kenya. On the one hand, platform workers face challenges because they are not officially recognised as workers, which places them outside established frameworks for labour relations, and causes trade unions to be hesitant to organise them. On the other hand, their misclassification as self-employed generates contradictory class positions – whereby some workers identify as partners, others as owners, and still others as employees – which makes collective action difficult. Nevertheless, platform workers engage in successive rounds of contestation, their identities as workers have become more crystalised and they have come recognise the value of unions as a source of institutional power.

Conclusion

Digital labour platforms have been one of the key drivers of labour transformation in the digital economy. Their scope and scale expanded dramatically with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Global South is fast becoming a new frontier of accumulation for Northern capital. For governments facing a deepening crisis of reproduction – characterised by rising unemployment and growing labour insecurity – location- and online-based platforms constitute a welcome source of wage-work (or at the very least, income). Despite hopes that platforms would enable countries in the Global South to leapfrog to higher levels of economic development, emerging evidence suggest that platforms have reinforced their subordinate position within Global circuits of capital. While informal employment has always been the norm in the Global South, the proliferation of digital labour platforms has extended labour insecurity into new sectors and imposed new forms of labour control through algorithmic management. Platform workers work long hours for little pay, have no access to labour or social protections, must absorb the full risk of activities and can be terminated with no due process. If workers are to benefit from the process of structural transformation, a shift in the balance of power between capital and labour is required.

This themed issue explores the transformative possibilities and limitations of emerging forms of worker organisation. Platform workers are notoriously difficult to organise. They are geographically dispersed and work in an individualised manner, which makes collective claim-making difficult. The elusive nature of algorithmic management muddies the nature of demands. And the misclassification of platform workers as self-employed means that it is not always clear from whom they should make claims. Nevertheless, the intensification of worker protests in the platform economy and emerging forms of organisation – from social media groups that provide support and facilitate collective mobilisation, including strikes; to mutual aid associations that offer some semblance of social security in the absence of employment relations; to platform cooperatives which provide an alternative vision of digitalisation – challenge the prevailing view that labour has become an irrelevant force for social transformation. Often, emerging forms of organisation build on existing networks. After all, in a context where non-standard employment has always been the norm and the scope of union representation limited, self-organised worker formations have played a critical role in protecting precarious workers.

Notably, there is some disagreement among contributors to the themed issue about the transformative possibilities and limitations of emerging forms of organisation. Clearly, unions have struggled to respond to the platform economy. Many have assumed a defensive position in the face of technological change, limiting their field of action to protecting the rights of a shrinking core of workers. For some contributors to the themed issue, the continued focus on trade unions, despite decades of declining union density, amounts to little more than trade union fetishism. After all, there are new forms of worker organisation that warrant scholarly attention. However, new forms of worker organisation have struggled to leverage sources of power to transform the conditions of work and social reproduction in the platform economy.

In the last few years, numerous initiatives to regulate the platform economy have been introduced. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, have ruled that platform workers are not independent contractors, and the International Labour Organization recently proposed the reclassification of platform workers as dependent contractors, which the International Conference of Labour Statisticians defines as, ‘workers who have contractual arrangements of a commercial nature (but not a contract of employment) to provide goods or services for or through another economic unit.’ However, as Atzeni argues, it is ‘not regulation as such that is the key to better working conditions in the digitalised labour process but rather how that regulatory framework is effectively used and contested by trade unions on the ground to get concessions for the workers they represent’. This point is reiterated by Castel-Branco et al who argue that the definition of worker is a political rather than a technical question. Ultimately, the contributions illustrate that the impact of digital technologies on the world of workers is neither predetermined nor linear. Rather it is shaped by struggle, the terms of which are themselves contingent.

Funding

The authors would like to thank the IDRC for their research support.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • African Union (2020) The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa: 2020–2030, Addis Ababa: African Union.

  • Anwar, M.A. and Graham, M. (2022) The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Atzeni, M. (2023) The labour process and workers’ rights at Mercado Libre: hiding exploitation through regulation in the digital economy, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 181200. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000003

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Castel-Branco, R., Mutoro, B. and Webster, E. (2023) Building the car while driving it: organising platform workers in the e-hailing sector in Kenya, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 24357. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000007

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chinguno, C. (2023) ‘Customer is king’: gig work in a small South African city and the varieties of digital control and workers’ responses, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 13960. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000005

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ILO (International Labour Organization) (2021) World Employment and Social Outlook: The Role of Digital Labour Platforms in Transforming the World of Work. Geneva: ILO.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kenny, B. and Webster, E. (2021) The return of the labour process: race, skill and technology in South African labour studies, Work in the Global Economy, 1(1–2): 1332. doi: 10.1332/273241721x16276384395872

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nair, G. and Divyadarshi, J. (2023) Unexceptional neoliberalism and the future of work: constrained enterprise and worker subjectivities in the gig economy of India, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 11638. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ness, I. (2023) The chimera of new forms of worker organisation: why trade unions matter in rebuilding national and global labour movements, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 22542. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schmalz, S., Basualdo, V., Serrano, M., Vandaele, K. and Webster, E. (2023) Varieties of platform unionism: a view from the Global South on workers’ power in the digital economy, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 20124. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000001

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Silver, B.J. (2003) Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalisation Since 1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Souza, L. (2023) The work of food couriers in Rio de Janeiro and digital labour platforms: the paths of precarisation, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 16180. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, F.W. (2003) Scientific Management, London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203498569

  • Webster, E. and Masikane, F. (2020) ‘I just want to survive’: The case of food delivery couriers in Johannesburg, SCIS Working paper, Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • African Union (2020) The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa: 2020–2030, Addis Ababa: African Union.

  • Anwar, M.A. and Graham, M. (2022) The Digital Continent: Placing Africa in Planetary Networks of Work, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Atzeni, M. (2023) The labour process and workers’ rights at Mercado Libre: hiding exploitation through regulation in the digital economy, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 181200. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000003

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Castel-Branco, R., Mutoro, B. and Webster, E. (2023) Building the car while driving it: organising platform workers in the e-hailing sector in Kenya, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 24357. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000007

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chinguno, C. (2023) ‘Customer is king’: gig work in a small South African city and the varieties of digital control and workers’ responses, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 13960. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000005

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ILO (International Labour Organization) (2021) World Employment and Social Outlook: The Role of Digital Labour Platforms in Transforming the World of Work. Geneva: ILO.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kenny, B. and Webster, E. (2021) The return of the labour process: race, skill and technology in South African labour studies, Work in the Global Economy, 1(1–2): 1332. doi: 10.1332/273241721x16276384395872

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Nair, G. and Divyadarshi, J. (2023) Unexceptional neoliberalism and the future of work: constrained enterprise and worker subjectivities in the gig economy of India, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 11638. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000006

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ness, I. (2023) The chimera of new forms of worker organisation: why trade unions matter in rebuilding national and global labour movements, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 22542. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000002

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schmalz, S., Basualdo, V., Serrano, M., Vandaele, K. and Webster, E. (2023) Varieties of platform unionism: a view from the Global South on workers’ power in the digital economy, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 20124. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000001

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Silver, B.J. (2003) Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalisation Since 1870, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Souza, L. (2023) The work of food couriers in Rio de Janeiro and digital labour platforms: the paths of precarisation, Work in the Global Economy, 3(2): 16180. doi: 10.1332/27324176Y2023D000000004

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, F.W. (2003) Scientific Management, London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203498569

  • Webster, E. and Masikane, F. (2020) ‘I just want to survive’: The case of food delivery couriers in Johannesburg, SCIS Working paper, Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
Ruth Castel-Branco University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Search for other papers by Ruth Castel-Branco in
Current site
Google Scholar
Close
and
Hannah J. Dawson University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Search for other papers by Hannah J. Dawson in
Current site
Google Scholar
Close

Content Metrics

May 2022 onwards Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 11 11 0
Full Text Views 1643 1643 546
PDF Downloads 828 828 82

Altmetrics

Dimensions