Are online freelancing platforms creating ‘digital sweatshops’?

12 04 2016
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Image: marisaorton, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an effort to tear myself away from my time-sucking, one-woman mission to save humanity from the perils and pitfalls of online freelancing platforms, I haven’t blogged here for a long time, so hello!

However, today, while flicking through Asia Research 2016 magazine for an entirely different reason, I came across an article that I found very interesting, so I wanted to share it with my followers (crikey, there are 622 of you now!).

The article, “Exploring the global flow of digital labour,” (see page 10 of digi-mag) describes a project by Professor Mark Graham (Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford) and collaborators to investigate the structure of virtual production networks in Africa and Southeast Asia.

In the article, Professor Graham questions whether virtual workplaces, such as Upwork and Freelancer.com, really are addressing unemployment gaps through globalisation of the labour market, or whether they are exploiting people in low-income countries in what he terms “digital sweatshops”. Indeed, data from oDesk highlighted in the article suggests that the demand for virtual employees comes from wealthy western countries, while the labour itself comes from low-income countries, with “labour sellers” acting as middle-men in emerging economies.

Here on my own blog I have expressed my concerns about the exploitation of cheap foreign labour through online platforms, particularly when it involves unethical practices such as plagiarism, copyright theft and black hat marketing. It seems I’m not the only one who is worried about these things, and whether governments and freelancing platform companies are doing enough to safeguard workers who receive minimal pay and next to no social protection.

Partnering with the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada, a goal of Professor Graham’s research is to identify areas where policies might be implemented or improved to help young and other vulnerable people benefit from the online workplace, and to protect them from digital exploitation.

I look forward to reading more about this work!








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