December 7, 2020

On the Development of Data & Labour (by Mohammad Amir Anwar)

Behind the apparent invisible workings of the digital economy is human labour, who perform a variety of tasks involving manipulating digital data. We call this digital labour, which can be performed by workers both at the firm-level and at the individual levels through digital labour platforms. Driverless cars, search engines, recommendation systems, and the social media content we see on our Facebook/Twitter timeline is made possible by this digital labour. But we rarely associate Africa to be central productive node in any of the global production networks of these technologies and digital goods.

In fact, many of these are dependent on inputs derived Africa (and also natural resources, minerals). Workers and local companies in Africa are providing data-based services to clients abroad, for example, image tagging, digitisation, customer services, transcription, search engine optimisation, etc.

From training cameras mounted on driverless cars, to training next-generation search engines and creating digital content on the Internet used by ordinary users daily such as Google Infobox, movies with subtitles, and product reviews on e-commerce websites, many African workers make our advanced digital technologies possible: the source of profit for large private corporations, primarily based in the high-income countries. Only recently it has become common knowledge that Kenyan workers are central to the academic writing for secondary school, undergraduate, and post-graduate students in the US and the UK.

The inclusion of African economies and workers into the networks of digital capitalism has development implications. In the context of high unemployment rates and high informal employment in Africa (the highest in the world), digital labour has implications for employment, poverty, inequality, and development. Job creation has become a priority for national policy makers. Digital work in Africa is seen as a panacea or a fix for the region’s chronic unemployment as many governments, in partnerships with third-party organisations have dedicated programmes and policies to support a variety of activities. There are various ambitious initiatives in Africa for creating digital jobs. The Mastercard Foundation has US$ 200 million programme for providing 30 million young people in Africa, particularly young women, secure dignified and fulfilling work. IBM, a global IT  giant, is investing US$70 million for building digital skills (digital, cloud, and cognitive IT skills) among youths in Africa. The African Development Bank has Jobs for Youth in Africa which plans to create 25 million jobs and impact 50 million youth over the next decade. 

We, therefore, approach the issue of data and digital labour from a variety of angles. We are concerned not just by what kind of digital tasks are being performed to develop/produce digital goods (nature and kind), but also where do these get done (geography), who is performing (kind of labour), for whom and for what purposes (network and power), and what are the impacts of this digital labour in Africa (development).

 As part of Developing Data Project, we hosted our first workshop on 01-02 September 2020. One of the panel in this workshop explored the multifaceted relationship between digital data and labour in Africa. Our invited speakers came from a diverse background and represented key stakeholders such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Mastercard Foundation, and a local IT firm from Kenya called Adept Technologies.

Mercy from Adept Technologies (Kenya) spoke about the image tagging and transcription work they have done for their clients (both foreign and local) and the challenges they face in terms of doing high value-added work. Some of these challenges relate to the power of the incumbents, reputation and trust in the production networks, and also skills available locally.

Patrick Karanja, from Mastercard Foundation, elaborated on the Young African Works programme. Patrick highlighted the multi-scalar, multi-actors, and country-specific strategy of the Young Africa Works programme and its role in provision of necessary skills, education and training to youths in Africa. One of the key elements of the programme is the provision of digital skills for data-based digital jobs in the future in Africa.

While thousands of African workers are joining the digital labour markets that have been described as planetary, the prospects of these data-driven work activities towards the provision of jobs, decent working conditions, and workers career development have been a subject of intense debate.

Uma Rani, Senior Economist from the ILO, explored the opportunities and contradictions of digital labour and data-based work activities for workers on the African continent. She also stressed that the emergence of data-based digital labour has brought in genuine concerns for the labour relations in the contemporary world economy. The ongoing pandemic exposed the prevalence of contingent employment relations (zero-hour contracts, short-term contracts, gig-based work type, and misclassification of employees by employers), which left millions of workers facing the prospects of job losses. While the government around the world are scrambling to provide necessary (but temporary) support for their workers, the solutions should be based on long-term strategy. Uma outlined 18 principles for ensuring decent work in newly emerging digital work activities in Africa and beyond.

As we move further in our research work, we aim to engage with the insights we gained from our panel discussion and apply the key messages towards broader research strategy. A full recording of the Data+Labour panel is given here, for those wanting the full discussion. Please let us know if you have some questions or comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *