Future of Work in the global South (FOWIGS): Digital Labour, New Opportunities and Challenges

(Working paper)


In many developing economies, location-based  platforms that coordinate demand and supply for services through manual labour have been viewed as a panacea to growing unemployment— with potential positive spillover effects that could boost investments in soft and hard information and communication technology (ICT)  infrastructure in these nascent digital ecosystems (Kiosken et al, 2018). Location-based platforms have the potential to create opportunities that offer an alternative to traditional employment, yet these opportunities are overshadowed by challenges and risks that are inherent in the digital economy (UNCTAD, 2019). For many platform workers, these challenges include poor working conditions that are regulated by terms of service agreements (as opposed to employment contracts), that fails to account for low income, often precarious work, no social protection,

and lack of agency and privacy.  Moreover, the potential consequences of unregulated algorithmic management of work organisation and working conditions suggests that the algorithmically managed tasks may accelerate and exacerbate existing precarious employment dynamics (Danaher, et al.,2017; Casilli and Gutierrez, 2019).

As reflected in the key findings (section 5), platform workers must often work longer hours, accept lower pay, and assume greater risks in order to compete for jobs on these platforms. The following section examines the main characteristics of the gig or ‘on-demand’ economy to contextualise the key findings  in section 5, which assesses the experiences of workers who work on location-based digital labour platforms in South Africa.

This research was undertaken as part of a wider global South study across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) , Latin America , and South East Asia on the FoWiGS project. The aim of the  project was to identify the nature of multidimensional inequalities in developing countries and understand the extent to which involvement in the digital economy closes, reproduces or widens existing inequalities, especially for marginalised groups.  Building on findings from the 2020 FoWiGS Quantitative Report (QR) and the 2018 report on microwork across seven African countries, this study explores some of the qualitative dimensions that arise and cannot be quantified and/or explained by these quantitative analyses of  data from the 2018 After Access Survey. The key main findings from RIA’s previous research on the gig economy are as follows:

  • with the low level of Internet penetration on the continent, adoption of ‘platform-work’ in SSA is highly constrained.  Most of this work  is undertaken on location-based platforms, where tasks  are sourced online but carried out “in-person” by workers within certain geographical boundaries (e.g., such as  e-hailing, e-delivery or domestic work);
  • the main motivation to participate in the digital labour market is highly correlated with income and women are more likely to be motivated to work online to increase or supplement their income than increase skills;
  • the QR reveals that there are still differentials in income between males and females who participate in the on-demand labour market. The income wage gap favours men with male platform workers having higher income than females who also participate in the same type of work, with the same level of digital capabilities. There are also employment characteristics that cannot be explained by the data or modelling of it, that widen the gender income gap;
  • there are noticeable gendered divisions in the type of work and digital labour platforms commonly used by men and women. For instance, riding/taxi/delivery services are predominantly carried out by men rather than women; and
  • the on-demand economy exhibits new features that disrupt, but overall it represents the continuation (and in some cases deepening) of long-standing structural and gendered inequalities.

These results indicated that further research was required to investigate the unmeasurable characteristics that perpetuate gender differentials as platform workers interact with digital platform intermediaries. This is particularly the case for SSA, which has the largest  stock of low-skilled workers often engaged in informal and low-productivity activities, and where women are overrepresented (Choi et, al, 2020; Hunt and Samman, 2019).

The purpose of this study then was to understand how the working conditions imposed by platform business models amplify and exploit inequalities. From an intersectional perspective it seeks to understand the nature of inequality in relation to class, race and gender in order to identify the required points, and feasibility, of regulation.

Concerted measures are needed to ensure that conditions for addressing longstanding inequity that has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. These are necessary in order to navigate the current ongoing pandemic disrupted landscape, as countries formulate ways to “build back better” for a more inclusive, resilient society grounded by economic justice and shared prosperity from the emerging data-driven economy. Having provided this brief introduction to the project, the next section describes the location-based platform model and provides insights from the QR context to understand: multidimensional inequalities in the labour market; the gendered division of labour in platform work; harms that arise due to data use and algorithmic management in the on-demand economy; and the interaction between the platform, the customer, and platform worker.  This information provides context that supports the key findings from the focus groups. Next, we explain the methodological procedures that have been applied to conduct the qualitative study. Section 5 presents the key findings from the focus group discussions. And lastly, this report ends with conclusions and recommendations where we advocate for an ecosystemic approach that requires all stakeholders that are part of the platform economy (platforms, policymakers and regulators, platform workers and trade unions, and consumers) to support interventions that can create fair working conditions needed to promote both gender-equity and  economic justice for platform workers in South Africa. 

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