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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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Decent Digital Work and the FairWork Foundation

31 October 2017 1 comment

How can we improve standards for digital gig workers: those undertaking micro-work and online freelancing via platforms like Upwork and Mechanical Turk?

The recent research paper – “Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy” – explains why such standards are needed.  With up to 70m workers worldwide registered for online work and growth rates of 20-30% per year, this is already a sizeable activity.  It is especially popular with the c.80% of workers based in middle- and low-income countries, who often see online work as better than local alternatives.  However, this ignores the chronic precarity and structural inequality associated with such work: damaging outcomes that will only spread if nothing is done.

But what should be done?

The paper develops an inventory of “Decent Digital Work” standards.  This is a comprehensive set of guidelines that integrates two things: first, the global decent work standards set by the ILO; second, the actions needed to address specific digital gig economy problems.

A key value for this inventory is as a comparator with other decent work initiatives.  For example, the paper analyses the way in which two major initiatives – SA8000, and the Ethical Trading Initiative – do and do not cover the requirements for decent digital work.

Below, a further comparison is undertaken, between the Decent Digital Work standards, and the criteria adopted by the FairWork Foundation; an initiative aiming to rate and certify gig economy platforms.  The table indicates those elements which are the same in both standards; those where a completely-different element is included; and those where there is some variation in the element.

From this, three things can be concluded:

a) A number of Decent Digital Work standards are absent in the FairWork Foundation certification criteria. Several of these relate to the broader context for work, would be outwith the scope of an individual platform, and therefore are not relevant to platform certification. However, those identified under “Employment” and “Work Conditions” can form part of a further discussion to consider their relevance to certification.

b) Some elements (e.g. around access to digital work opportunities, and accounting for worker costs other than unpaid time) speak to the particular conditions of gig workers from the global South. This is the location for the great majority of gig workers: already for digital gig workers; increasingly for physical gig workers. As such, the FairWork Foundation must ensure its global North origins do not skew its focus.

c) The FairWork Foundation should review how prevalent the non-competition and non-disclosure agreement problems are, and whether they are worth including. (Human review of task instructions – something unlikely to be practicable for most platforms – appears to have been dropped from later versions of the certification criteria; hence, its inclusion in brackets.)

As noted in the Decent Work and the Digital Gig Economy paper’s action research agenda, next steps here would be:

– Survey of worker, client and platform views about identified standards.

– A multi-stakeholder dialogue to agree a minimum set of certification standards and evaluation methods.

– Parallel research on the impact of standards and certifications in the gig economy, and analysing the costs and benefits of interventions such as standards and certifications at micro- and macro-level.

This is just one example of the application of the Decent Digital Work standards.  We hope you can identify other uses . . .

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