‘Digital’ workers don’t delete Marx

by Farooque Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, May 11,2021


‘DIGITAL’ economy and work, like the imagined and claimed ‘4th industrial revolution’, are mesmerising many scholars that lead them to chorus: ‘Blue-collars are gone, gone are smoke spewing chimneys, so is Marx’. But, do facts support those scholars’ choir ‘Cancel Marx’ even if data related to blue-collar employees are ignored?

The International Labour Organisation report The World Employment and Social Outlook, The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work, 2021 (Geneva, Switzerland, February 23, 2021) focuses on digital labour platforms, which mediate work, and have rapidly penetrated economic sectors. The praiseworthy report helps to understand condition of the ‘digital’ workers, exposes bitter facts related to workers’ life.

The 280-page report draws on findings of ILO surveys among some 12,000 workers in 100 countries working on freelance, contest‑based, competitive programming and microtask platforms, and in the taxi and delivery sectors. It also draws on interviews with representatives of 70 businesses of different types, 16 platform companies and 14 platform worker associations around the world in multiple sectors.

The work, as the ILO report says, provides a pioneering and comprehensive international overview of the platform business model, etc, based on analysis of the terms of service agreements of 31 major online web‑based and location‑based platforms, and on the experiences of workers and clients on these platforms.


Independent contractors

ACCORDING to the report, digital labour platforms offer two types of work relationship: workers directly hired by a platform, or their work mediated through a platform. In the first case, they are categorised as employees, in the second case, as self‑employed or independent contractors. Those working under an employment relationship tend to be responsible for the functioning of the platform and comprise a relatively small fraction of the platform workforce. The freelance platform PeoplePerHour, for example, has about 50 employees while it mediates work for 2.4 million skilled workers. [In this paragraph, and in the following paragraphs referring to the ILO report, emphasis added.]

So, workers ‘are not’ workers in all cases. They are ‘self-employed’ or ‘independent contractors’. As ‘self-employed’/’independent contractors’, they are deprived of rights, even if rights are there. Moreover, a platoon of foremen supervises million-strong army of labour. A ‘self-employed’ survives on his own, finding bread is his responsibility, incurring or non-incurring medical cost is his ability or inability, although that ‘self-employed’/’independent contractor’ has no freedom in real sense as hunger, uncertainty and fear haunt him, compel him not to behave ‘rebellious’ with the boss — the capital that offers ‘independence’ and ‘contract’ to him, although that contract is not actually a contract as the ‘independent’/’self-employed’ has no bargaining position, an essential element of contract.



ESTIMATING the actual size of the platform‑mediated workforce, the report says, is a challenge owing to non‑disclosure of data. In Europe and North America, the proportion of the adult population that has performed platform work ranges between 0.3 and 22 per cent.

Therefore, the size of the ‘digital’ labour army engaged by capital is ‘beyond’ estimation. Is ‘digital’ worker an invisible force? Hiding fact is capital’s trick. Knowing number related to capital is essential to plan and organise for identifying deprivation, attaining rights. Kings, generals, invaders and mines in the medieval age knew relevant numbers. Do robber gangs, pickpocket and petty thief groups not know number of its members? Capitalism in its infancy knew all relevant numbers — amount of capital, interest, tax, profit, labourer employed, wheels, bearings, pistons, spindles, chimneys, bricks, produce, pawnshops, prayer places, pubs, market and prison size, quantity of food labour consumed and hours of sleep labour was allowed, etc. But now, with ‘digital’ labour, the number ‘vanishes’. Where does the trick lie? Why does capital create such a condition where estimating numbers related to investment and profit is a challenge? Here, the ‘numberless’ situation of workforce is a mirror of condition of the labour engaged with this part of economy with billions of dollars. (Investment in Asia, according to the ILO report, was $56 billion, in North America, $46 billion, in Europe, $12 billion, in Latin America, Africa and the Arab States, $4 billion; the globally generated revenue of the digital labour platforms at least $52 billion in 2019; seven largest technology companies had a cumulative revenue of over $1,010 billion in 2019.)


Access global workforce

THE report says: Since March 2020, the Covid pandemic has led to an increase in remote‑working arrangements, further reinforcing the growth of the digital economy. The past decade has seen a fivefold increase in the number of digital labour platform. A large proportion is concentrated in a few locations: the US (29 per cent), India (8 per cent) and the UK (5 per cent); online web‑based and location‑based (taxi and delivery) platforms rose from 142 in 2010 to over 777 in 2020; online web‑based platforms tripled over this period; taxi and delivery platforms grew almost tenfold.

Digital labour platforms, a distinctive part of the digital economy, can be classified into two broad categories: online web‑based and location‑based platforms. Online web-based platforms, tasks or work assignments may include translation, legal, financial and patent services, design and software development on freelance and contest‑based platforms; solving complex programming or data analytics problems within a designated time on competitive programming platforms; or completing short‑term tasks, such as annotating images, moderating content, or transcribing a video on microtask platforms. Workers carry out the tasks on location-based platforms in locations, and these include taxi, delivery, domestic work and care provision, and home services including work of plumber or electrician.

In developing countries in particular, such platforms are regarded as a promising source of work opportunities. Businesses are also benefiting, as they can access a global and local workforce to improve efficiency and enhance productivity, and enjoy wider market reach.

Those engaged on digital labour platforms are a relatively fast-growing share of the workforce. The consequences of the pandemic are exposing the risks and inequalities for workers, particularly for those engaged on location-based platforms.

The ‘digital’ wheel is more powerful — it continues moving while the pandemic stops the ‘non-digital’ wheel’s circling. Both, blue and white-collar employees are there in the ‘digital’ economy. But many, if not all, are not full-time, regular employees. Therefore, the ‘digital’ capital does not have to take responsibilities ‘non-digital’ capital has to take — arrange, for example, physical facilities for all the labour hired. At times and in areas, the number may be high, which would have required a big cost and other related expenditures had a premise would have been required. [This also happens with the capital engaged as ‘micro’ creditor.] Jobs performed in the ‘digital’ welkin are the same as in ‘non-digital’ sphere. There are the lucrative ‘developing’ countries — source of cheap labour. There the ‘digital’ labour faces the same whip — productivity and efficiency, which is produce more within shorter time-frame, produce with less cost, and produce with flawless quality. In another way, the sacred song is dig, dig, dig fast and heavy, over-stretch muscles, be merciless to self, but kind and obedient to master. But, it should not be forgotten that with increased productivity, finds Marx, labourer cheapens, resulting higher rate of surplus value, even when real wages rise. There is the growing global and local ‘digital’ workforce — competition among labour to bite the slim slice suspended by master; and there’s a coming reserve army of labour, with which the master — capital — can carry on conjurations. There are the inequalities — undeniable contribution of exploiting capital. There is the expanding market — a deity ruthless to labour.


Supply exceeds demand

ON ONLINE web-based platforms, the report says, labour supply exceeds demand, placing downward pressure on earnings. Since the Covid outbreak, the labour supply on platforms has increased significantly while the demand for work has decreased. The demand for work on the five major online web‑based platforms largely originates from developed countries while the labour supply originates predominantly from developing countries. The evidence indicates that on some digital labour platforms there is excess labour supply leading to greater competition among workers that puts downward pressure on the price of the tasks to be performed.

Also, present is that ‘old’ reality — ‘developing’ countries, the source of cheap labour. Do these need explanations?


Revenue and governance

THE business strategies, the report finds, adopted by digital labour platforms comprise four key elements: (1) revenue strategy, (2) recruitment and matching of workers with clients, (3) work processes and performance management, and (4) rules of platform governance.

The revenue strategies are based on offering subscription plans and charging types of fees to platform workers and/or the businesses, clients or customers. Online web‑based platforms offer workers subscription plans with incremental benefits at extra cost, which tend to be essential for accessing more work. The platforms often charge a commission fee to workers and businesses; such fees tend to be higher for workers than clients on online web‑based platforms. For instance, Upwork generated 62 per cent of its 2019 revenue from types of fees charged to workers while 38 per cent was generated through fees charged to clients. Workers typically pay a commission fee on taxi platforms whereas on delivery platforms, businesses and customers generally do so.

Again, that ‘old’ reality — worker pays more. Doesn’t extra cost for more work put extra pressure on worker?

The digital labour platforms use algorithms for the matching of tasks or clients with workers, which has been transforming a traditional human resource process that typically involved human interaction. While traditional human resource practices base recruitment selection largely on education levels and experience, algorithmic matching is often determined by indicators such as ratings, client or customer reviews, rates of cancellation or acceptance of work, and worker profiles. On online web-based platforms, this matching process may also take into consideration a worker’s subscription plans and optional purchased packages. This practice risks excluding some workers from accessing tasks, particularly those from developing countries and those with lower incomes.

Therefore, that old dehumanising formula of capitalism — machine dictates man. Moreover, the machine does not favour the developing countries, the lower incomes. There is fear of reviews, actually a boss, and cancellation or acceptance, actually another boss; and bosses always need oiling, allegiance and appeasement. How far is the life dignified? Doesn’t Marx raise the issue, and propose a solution?

Algorithmic management of workers is central to the platform business model. Platforms provide a variety of software and hardware tools to facilitate the work process, monitor workers and enable communication between the client and the platform worker. These include monitoring of workers using the Global Positioning System, and tools that automatically capture screen shots or key‑board strokes on online web‑based platforms. Algorithms also assess, evaluate and rate platform worker performance and behaviour.

Never were bosses miser and idle in their job of surveillance. Since the birth of bosses, irrespective of age, phase, society, feudalism or capitalism, surveillance was always present as it is today. Books on statecraft authored in the Middle Age suggested kings on ways of surveillance of subjects — compelled to provide allegiance to kings. Otherwise, without surveillance, slaves would have been unceasingly disobedient and rebellious, glowing domes of palaces couldn’t have announced audacity, taxes wouldn’t have entered into rulers’ stomachs, rebellions would have crushed all the tombs of injustice and exploitation. What is now ‘new’, which is sometimes told as ‘surveillance capitalism’, is the extent and speed of technologies used for surveillance — the extent is widest possible, deepest possible, and fastest possible. Millions, not only political activists, but all including ordinary citizens, mothers at home, teachers in schools, office workers in office or home-office, are constantly under the eyes of surveillance; millions are tracked all the moments, to the seconds, to every move; entire society is under surveillance. What is ‘new’ now is all moves, all keystrokes, choices and preference, thought process, physical characteristics/condition, political and non-political activities and utterances, consumption, use of time, all aspects of life, all persons, moves of eyeballs, etc. are constantly under surveillance. The ‘new’ is the all-encompassing capacity of the surveillance, increased/enhanced power of machine; and show of more vulnerability of the system — the system needs all-encompassing surveillance to survive, to secure self, to maximise profit.

Digital labour platforms tend to shape unilaterally the governance architecture through terms of service agreements. This form of governance allows platforms to exercise considerable control over platform workers’ freedom to work, and can shape how and under what conditions clients or businesses engage with platform workers, through exclusivity clauses, for instance.

It is also that old game of capital — control over workers’ freedom to work, which is, actually, capital’s freedom to enslave workers; and a section of saint-like scholars’ freedom to forget capital’s this freedom to enslave not only workers, but also entire society. Those scholars sell that idea of freedom as freedom-universal — freedom applicable to all irrespective of classes, which is a propaganda material of the bourgeoisie. Doesn’t Marx expose this ‘freedom’, actually, slavery?



MANY traditional businesses, finds the ILO report, are increasingly relying on digital labour platforms to cope with greater competition and the need to expand, to keep pace with a transforming marketplace, and expand their markets, and to improve productivity, efficiency and profitability.

Market is brutal; and market expansion is not an innocent job. It is fierce and cruel. The first cannon-fodder in market expansion job is labour, then, society. Labour and broader society are the first to get hurt while the capital engaged with market expansion gains.


Corporate social responsibility

THERE are, according to the ILO report, outsourcing tasks to developing countries, often as part of their corporate social responsibility. While it is often perceived that AI does such tasks, in practice they require human value judgment, which is provided by business process outsourcing industry workers mainly based in developing countries, or ‘invisible’ workers on online web‑based platforms. The ILO surveys indicate that a majority of workers are highly educated, male, below the age of 35 years, in particular in developing countries.

The trick is clear — gain from both, CSR, and cheap labour, in cases, educated labour. The AI’s limit is exposed. Again, human is required, and again, it’s that cheap labour from the same source — the fertile ‘developing’ domain.


Lack of opportunities

THE report said: Complementing an existing income and the preference or need to work from home or for job flexibility are the main motivating factors for workers on online web‑based platforms. On location‑based platforms, lack of alternative employment opportunities, job flexibility and better pay are the key motivating factors. Work on digital labour platforms is the main source of income for many workers. On location‑based platforms, the overwhelming majority of workers indicated that this was the case. About one third of the workers on online web‑based platforms stated that platform work was the main source of income.

Here are those old issues: ‘complementing an existing income’, ‘lack of alternative employment opportunities’, ‘better pay’. Don’t these indicate condition of the millions in ‘non-digital’ sector experiences? Are the issues absent in Marx? Is Marx silent on the issues? Marx analyses the issues that the mainstream deliberately ignores. Slaves lacked opportunities. Today’s ‘digital’ economy, and its world — capitalism — offers, as it claims, ‘freedom’ of choice. Is this ‘freedom’ real? Or, should it be identified as ‘freedom-virtual’? Even, many workers with ‘freedom’ in capitalism have no choice of flying away from life as they have to think twice, before they commit that act, what shall happen to the family members, dependents after that fly away job is done by the worker in his moments of tiredness. Even, if the worker ‘succeeds’ in the job of flying away, the worker’s daughter and son will be in bondage because of a lack of alternative opportunity. Shall the mainstream define it as ‘entitlement’ to bondage?


Unpaid tasks

HOWEVER, the report found, there are major differences between the earnings of workers on online web-based platforms in developed and developing countries: On freelance platforms, workers in developing countries earn 60 per cent less. Earnings on online web‑based platforms are influenced by time spent on unpaid tasks, competition due to excess labour supply, high commission fees, and non‑payment due to rejection of work. Increasing labour supply can exceed the expected demand and result in intense competition. This situation also has the potential to reduce income‑generating opportunities for those in the traditional sectors.

What meaning does the difference between the ‘developing’ and the ‘developed’ carry? What meaning do the ’60 per cent less’, ‘unpaid tasks’, ‘increased labour supply’, ‘intense competition’ and ‘reduced income-opportunity’ bear? Doesn’t Marx explain these? Do these support the claim by the group of scholars eliminating Marx?


Working hours

THE surveys found: Working hours vary across platforms. Workers on online web‑based platforms work 27 hours on average in a typical week, including both paid and unpaid work, with about one third of their time, or eight hours, spent on unpaid work. About half of them have other paid jobs, working 28 hours on average per week in these jobs in addition to their platform work, which can make for a long workweek. Some workers on online web‑based platforms face unpredictable work schedules and unsocial hours, particularly in developing countries, as clients are often based in developed countries. This may have negative implications for their work-life balance.

On location‑based platforms, it says, most workers in the taxi and delivery sectors work with high intensity and for long hours, on average 65 hours per week in the taxi sector and 59 hours per week in the delivery sector. On app‑based taxi and delivery platforms, a high proportion of respondents (79 per cent and 74 per cent respectively) mentioned they had some degree of stress due to their work, often related to traffic congestion, insufficient pay, lack of orders or clients, long working hours, the risk of work‑related injury and pressure to drive quickly.

Does Marx go scrubbed with this reality of ‘unpaid’, ‘one third’, ‘long’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘high intensity’, ‘insufficient’, etc? Marx is enemy to those scholars as he has exposed this reality.



MANY workers on both types of platforms, the ILO report says, would like to do more work. They are unable to do so mostly due to the unavailability of enough work or of well‑paid tasks. Platform design may also restrict workers from certain developing countries from accessing well‑paid jobs on online web‑based platforms.

There are issues of ‘redefining the relationship between formal education and access to work’, and skills mismatch — a highly educated workforce performs tasks requiring few or no specific skills. A nice arrangement — educated worker with less money. Labour is cheap in ‘digital’ arrangement!

Why they like to do more work? To earn more. Why they like to earn more? Life is difficult with less earning. Why life is difficult? In exploitative environment, life turns difficult. The answer is in Marx, even, now, in a part of mainstream literature.

Don’t restrictions curtail freedom to access well-paid jobs? The bourgeois scholars have the answer, which they don’t utter, but they skilfully spread confusion. It’s their masteries!


Unilateral and entitlement

WORKING conditions on the digital labour platforms, the report says, are largely regulated by terms of service agreements, which are unilaterally determined by the platforms; define aspects related to working time, pay, customer service etiquette, applicable law and data ownership, among others. As a result, platform workers cannot access many of the workplace protections and entitlements applicable to employees.

What do these mean — unilaterally determined, can’t access, etc.? Entitlements? Freedom? Rights? Agreement? Bourgeois definitions are ‘to be accepted’, and Marx is ‘to be thrown away’, is it the suggestion from scholars serving capital?


Freedom and inability

ACCORDING to the report, platform design and algorithmic management are defining the everyday experiences of workers on the digital platforms. Platforms use algorithms to match workers with clients or customers, a process in which worker ratings are decisive. This in effect limits workers’ ability and freedom to reject work. A considerable number of workers in the app‑based taxi and delivery sectors indicated they were unable to refuse or cancel work on account of the negative impact this would have on their ratings, which could lead to reduced access to work, lost bonuses, financial penalties and even account deactivation. Most platform workers are unaware of any formal process for filing a complaint or seeking help in such cases.

Don’t the scholars denouncing Marx get happy as they learn condition of the ‘digital’ workers — defining, limiting ability and freedom, unable to refuse or cancel, unaware, etc? ‘Workers are to be kept unaware’, and ‘workers’ freedom should be limited’, is it, revered scholars?


Collective bargaining

PLATFORM workers, the ILO surveys found, are often unable to engage in collective bargaining. In many jurisdictions, competition law prohibits self‑employed workers from engaging in collective bargaining. Another challenge to the collective organisation of digital platform workers is that they are geographically dispersed.

See the reality, dear Marx-invalidating-scholars: Unable, law prohibits, dispersed. Don’t you cheer these dispersed workers inability, and law snatching away these workers’ rights, dear scholars?


Social security

THE report says: The majority of workers on digital labour platforms do not have social security coverage that includes health insurance, work‑related injury provision, unemployment and disability insurance, and old‑age pension or retirement benefits. Workers in the app‑based taxi and delivery sectors, particularly women, face occupational safety and health risks. A considerable number of workers on these platforms have experienced or witnessed discrimination or harassment.

Don’t millions of workers in ‘non-digital’ sectors face the same reality — no social security, occupational and health risks, discrimination, harassment? No doubt, the scholars working extra hours to find out Marx’s mistakes will draw a line of difference between the ‘non-digital’ and ‘digital’ workers. That will be their scholarship!


Extra work

DURING the pandemic, the report says, the majority of the workers in both the taxi and delivery sectors indicated declining demand, which had reduced the earnings for nine out of ten taxi drivers and seven out of ten delivery workers. To compensate for the loss of income, some workers had started to engage in additional work activities, or provided taxi and delivery services outside the platforms through their private contacts; many had also reduced unnecessary expenditure, used savings, deferred payment of bills, or taken a loan.

Do factory workers work in privately arranged manufacturing to compensate their reduced income from working in a factory? The scholars erasing Marx will provide answer to the question. They will see ‘private initiative’ or ‘individual/small enterprise’ in the arrangement, which, according to them, is ‘individual’s freedom to work’. Isn’t it the way they argue, and escape away from facts?


Necessity, health

THE ILO report said some workers on location‑based platforms working throughout the crisis due to economic necessity, despite feeling anxiety about contracting COVID‑19; seven out of ten workers not being able to take paid sick leave, or to receive compensation, in the event they were to test positive for the virus; about half the surveyed workers who were provided with PPE stated that the quantity or quality of PPE provided was inadequate; eight out of ten workers had incurred additional financial expenditure as they had been obliged to purchase PPE themselves.

Work despite sick condition of health, extra economic burden, etc. accompanies these workers. Were slaves living in in such condition: Procure own clothing and medicine? Arrange own food by working extra hours? The section of scholars cancelling Marx, surely, provides answers to the questions.

There are issues, as the ILO’s facts-exposing work shows, related to labour that include wage, working day, working condition, control over labour, capital, market including labour market. None of the issues, mentioned in the ILO report, skips/escapes relations between labour and capital, and labour and market; and, thus, the contradictions connected to/crop out of these do not vaporise. Someone can sarcastically claim the contradictions turn ‘digital’. Let’s listen from Marx:

‘Within the process of production, […] capital acquired the command over labour, ie, over functioning labour-power or the labourer himself. Personified capital, the capitalist takes care that the labourer does his work regularly and with the proper degree of intensity.

‘Capital further developed into a coercive relation, which compels the working-class to do more work than the narrow round of its own life-wants prescribe. [….]

‘At first, capital subordinates labour on the basis of the technical conditions in which it historically finds it. It does not, therefore, change immediately the mode of production. The production of surplus value […] by means of simple extension of the working-day, proved, therefore, to be independent of any change in the mode of production itself. It was not less active in the old-fashioned bakeries than in the modern cotton factories.’ (Capital, vol. I)

Is the ‘digital’ worker free from command of capital, free from the intensity of work capitalist desires and demands, free from coercive relation? Has not the ‘digital’ worker been subordinated to technical conditions capital commands?

And, Marx continues:

‘Really free working […] is at the same time precisely the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.’ (Grundrisse)

Is the said ‘digital’ worker free from exertion? And, exertion is related to surplus labour cheated from worker. This means whatever the cheat capitalist hands over for necessary labour is not even bare minimum for worker. What does it mean when worker goes for second job after working with the first job? Doesn’t it mean that the worker isn’t paid for necessary labour in the first job? Isn’t it again pushing the worker’s head and muscles into the second machine for getting exploited, and that ‘stupidity’ is done by the worker simply to keep him and his dependents’ alive for falling prey to exploitation next days and next months as the first machine hasn’t given him for the necessary labour?

Marx is unequivocal, as he writes:

‘Competition generally, this essential locomotive force of the bourgeois economy, does not establish its laws, but is rather their executor. Unlimited competition is therefore not the presupposition for the truth of the economic laws, but rather the consequence — the form of appearance in which their necessity realises itself.’ (ibid.)

Do the ‘digital’ workers stay beyond tentacles of competition? Don’t they fall prey to this executor — competition? The competition is in the labour market, globally, between ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ spheres, between ‘digital’ and ‘traditional’ workers, between capitals, into which the worker is nothing more than bundle of hay waiting to be pushed into machine for profit? Is the ‘digital’ workers’ ‘freedom’ different from the ‘freedom’ ‘traditional’ workers ‘enjoy’? Don’t they, borrowing from Marx, exchange their labor with capital, and confront capital as workers? Hasn’t capital, as Marx says, ‘paid [them] the amount of objectified labour contained in [their] vital force’?

Thus, economic and political demands of ‘digital’ workers aren’t fundamentally different from the demands all workers around the world raise on May Day, and the ‘digital’ workers don’t delete Marx.


Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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