As More Work Moves Online, The Threat of 'Digital Sweatshops' Looms

For some in developing countries, virtual assembly lines of data entry have parallels with bricks-and-mortar factories.

There are at least a whopping 3.2 billion people online, and with that comes increasing opportunities to connect and work with others from all across the globe. But on the flipside, as technologically savvy employers take advantage of the online people rush, could unregulated digital labor markets lead to exchanging physical sweatshops for digital ones?

In a paper currently under review, Mark Graham, a senior research fellow at Oxford University's Internet Institute, sets out to explore such issues and investigate both the highs and lows of digital labor—whether that be data entry or transcribing—in the context of development. In a nutshell, the research team are trying to understand how the internet is shifting work patterns, employee lifestyles, and labor regulations in south east Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

"At the moment, when we use Facebook or do a Google search, we have no idea what kind of human labor is behind those clicks or those uploads, what kind of people are sitting in content moderation farms in the Philippines," said Graham, who recommended less opacity in these chains so that workers from developing countries weren't "paid peanuts."

In their study, the research team spoke with 144 online workers in order to suss out what kind of digital work they did, and how it could impact their livelihoods. Though Graham said that it would still be a few months until the group could make any quantitative claims, they were able to find out a few interesting things from their preliminary results.

While workers connected to online business can sometimes earn much more than what a boss at a regular job in a factory or office in their country of origin would pay them, according to Graham, digital workers still face certain risks.

"Almost all of this work is precarious in some way as there isn't much stability or security for these workers as it's just as easy to fire them as it is to hire them," explained Graham. "It allows the clients of businesses hiring these workers a risk-free strategy—instead of taking the risk of taking these workers on on more secure stable contracts, they are putting this risk onto workers themselves."

The report does feature examples of people who benefited from switching regular office work with more flexible online labor. For example, they refer to a Vietnam-based woman who quit her job at a bank and secured a data entry job for a multinational corporation where she made four times her previous salary.

"Imagine people doing things like spending eight hours a day tagging images, or transcribing little text snippets over and over again–you're essentially part of a virtual assembly line"

Graham pointed out, however, that there were other examples of people knowing little about their employers, and thus not being able to take them to a small claims court or track them down when employers neglected, for instance, to pay wages. He also said that the idea of a 'sweatshop' where workers conducted repetitive and atomized tasks could just as well be translated into the digital sphere.

"Imagine people doing things like spending eight hours a day tagging images, or transcribing little text snippets over and over again–you're essentially part of a virtual assembly line," said Graham. "We interested in finding out how much of the work falls along those lines, and how much of the work might be more empowering or beneficial to workers."

To prevent exploitative practices from underscoring the liberating potentials of the web, Graham suggested that more measures be taken by governments to make sure that labor regulations were in force, with workers engaging in online labor ensured living wages no matter where they were from.

"I think some of the problem is that nobody has really figured out how this stuff should be enforced. For instance, if you have a client in the UK hiring a Kenyan worker to do work for the company in the UK, whose labor laws apply?" he said.

Ultimately, the research team are interested in both the potentials of digital labor, which can "allow a lot of workers to transcend a local labor market" and "tap into a much more global supply of work", as well as the subsequent benefits and issues that this form of work can bring.