Archive for the ‘digital economy’ Category

How Many Platform Workers Are There in the Global South?

29 January 2019 Leave a comment

In developing countries, there has been a rapid increase in the gig economy and in the presence of digital labour platforms: defined as “a set of digital resources – including services and content – that enable value-creating interactions between consumers and individual service-providing workers”[1].

But how many workers actually work for such platforms?

I am not going to provide a reliable answer to that question but I will give some kind of ballpark figure.

We start by dividing out two types of platform work: digital gig work that involves digitisable tasks like data entry, writing copy, web design, accounting, etc; and physical gig work that involves a physical task like taxi driving, food delivery, domestic work, etc.  A previous estimate[2], updated to account for growth, would be that there were something like 10 million active digital gig workers in the global South at the start of 2019 (and around ten times that number registered on digital labour platforms but with 90% of them inactive).

So how many physical gig workers are there?  I’m going to break this down by continent since the extent of physical gig work seems to vary significantly between the three main continents of the global South.


Calculations here are based on extrapolations from just two economies, and seek to take account of wealth and population[3].  Current research for the Fairwork project estimates around 30,000 physical gig workers in South Africa; about half in taxi-driving and the rest mainly in delivery and domestic work.  Estimates for Nigeria[4] plus re-use of some of the same ratios found in South Africa, suggest 20,000 such workers.  Accounting for GDP per capita and population suggests around 60 workers per US$1,000 GDP/capita and per 1 million population; i.e. per US$1bn GDP.  Multiplying up to the overall GDP of Africa produces an estimate of c.130,000 physical gig workers in Africa.  However, given there are at least 100,000 in Egypt alone, we can at least double that to 250,000.


Similar calculations can be undertaken in Asia, based on numbers associated with platforms in India and Indonesia.  Extrapolating from estimates for taxi-driving and food delivery platforms in India[5], I estimate around 2 million physical gig workers in India.  For Indonesia[6], the figure is closer to 1 million.  Accounting for GDP suggests around 800 workers per US$1bn of GDP.  Multiplying up to the overall GDP of Asia (excluding Japan) produces an estimate of roughly 18 million physical gig workers in developing Asia.

However, there is an alternative approach, which is to exclude China in this calculation, which produces a figure of 9 million, and then take at face value claims that Didi Chuxing employs 21 million physical gig workers in China[7].  This would lead to an estimate of 30 million physical gig workers in developing Asia.

Latin America

Here, I’ve taken a simpler approach based on some national and continent-wide estimates of taxi driving[8] and then re-using ratios from the South Africa work.  This produces an estimate of something like 2 million physical gig workers in Latin America.


The basis for these estimates is flimsy, and the extrapolations are worse, so please attach a strong health warning to this material.  Better still, come up with some improved statistics.  But my ballpark figure is that there are at least 30 million platform-based gig workers in the global South; 10 million digital and just over 20 million physical.  And that the figure could be more than 40 million, which would be around 1.5% of the global South workforce.

A proportion of these workers are not relying on this as their primary source of income.  For digital gig workers, this number is anything from two-thirds to a half[9].  It may be somewhat less for the physical gig economy, so another ballpark would be that around 15-20 million workers in developing countries are relying on digital platforms for their primary source of income.

(Annual turnover is an issue for another day but, globally and summing figures for the digital gig economy[10] and main physical gig platforms Uber[11] and Didi Chuxing[12], it must be at least US$50bn.)


[1] Adapted from Constantinides, P., Henfridsson, O., & Parker, G. G. (2018). Introduction—Platforms and Infrastructures in the Digital Age, Information Systems Research, 29(2), 381-400

[2] Heeks, R. (2017) Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy, GDI Development Informatics Working Paper no.71, University of Manchester, UK

[3] An alternative approach would seek to extrapolate in terms of numbers of Internet users but that is correlated with GDP, and the figures still point to a strong under-representation of Africa in platform labour and strong over-representation of China.  Put another way, factors other than wealth and Internet access are needed to explain national differences in the proportions working in the platform economy.

[4] E.g. and

[5] E.g. and and

[6] e.g. and

[7] E.g. and

[8] E.g. and and and

[9] Heeks, R. (2017) Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy, GDI Development Informatics Working Paper no.71, University of Manchester, UK

[10] Heeks, R. (2017) Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy, GDI Development Informatics Working Paper no.71, University of Manchester, UK

[11] E.g.

[12] E.g.

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