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Do Outsourcing Clients Want Decent Digital Work?

22 December 2017 Leave a comment

There are growing concerns that digital gig work – supplied by platforms like Mechanical Turk, Upwork, Freelancer, etc – falls short of decent work standards.  (For further details see the working paper, “Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy”.)  To address this, and as discussed previously in this blog, there are plans to encourage new ethical standards.

But almost all evidence on this to date comes from workers.  The voices of only a few platforms have been heard, and there seems to be no evidence from clients.  Yet clients are central to decent digital work standards: if they create incentives for platforms to improve, that will be a powerful motivation.  Conversely, if clients don’t care, it removes a key driving force from the gig economy ecosystem.

So, what evidence can be found?

Here, I summarise Babin, R., & Myers, P. (2015) Social responsibility trends and perceptions in global IT outsourcing, Proceedings of the Conference on Information Systems Applied Research, v8, n3663.  This in turn summarises results from surveys conducted during 2009-2014 by the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals.

The survey was specifically about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in IT outsourcing.  So: a) it is not exactly about digital gig work but a broader category of outsourcing; b) the survey may encourage some level of “virtue signalling”: respondents wanting to appear more socially-responsible than they are in reality.  Nonetheless, it offers some relevant guidance about client attitudes to decent digital work.

In general terms, half the respondents were US-based; half were non-US; a fair reflection of gig work clients.  They ranged from SMEs to multinationals and just over half had a written CSR policy.  They are thus larger and more formally-CSR-inclined than the modal micro-enterprise client for digital gig work, but important given the increasing involvement of firms in gig outsourcing.

Key findings include the following:

– Nearly half “often” or “always” gave preference to outsourcing providers who had demonstrable CSR capability.

– Nearly two-thirds expected CSR consideration to become “more” or “much more” important in their future IT outsourcing.

– The largest factor in evaluating CSR capabilities of an outsourcing provider was its labour practices (see figure below).

Figure: Key factors in evaluating the CSR capabilities of an outsourcing provider, survey median (IAOP, 2009-14)

At least for this group of clients, then, the type of labour practices covered by proposed decent digital work standards were the top CSR issue; and CSR was quite widespread as a determinant in digital-related outsourcing (only 5% said they never used CSR as a determinant).

This gives some basis for believing – at least among larger clients for digital gig work – that an appetite exists for better employment and working conditions; an appetite that can encourage platforms to change.

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