Unpaid labour and territorial extraction in digital value networks

Cloudwork is absorbing an increasing proportion of the world’s labour and has been significantly boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic (ILO, 2021). We use cloudwork to refer to remotely performed labour mediated by digital labour platforms – companies that connect workers with clients through a digital interface, exert control over and extract value through the labour process (Howson et al., 2022). Recent estimates put the registered workforce on cloudwork platforms at 163 million (Stephany, 2021). Cloudwork encompasses a broad array of tasks and skillsets; however, it is united by two characteristics; the labour process is not intrinsically tied to location (i.e., can be carried out anywhere with an internet connection), and labour relations are enclosed within a digital platform infrastructure (platform), which defines the terms of engagement, usually to the exclusion of any other form of oversight (such as national or international regulation). Although the cloudwork labour process can technically be carried out anywhere, the majority of cloudwork takes place in the global South, serving corporate and individual clients disproportionately based in the global North (Gray & Suri, 2019; Graham et al., 2017; ILO, 2021; Jones, 2021). In 2020, nearly 35% of the labour supply on major English-language cloudwork platforms was located in India alone, followed by Bangladesh and Pakistan, while nearly 40% of the demand emanated from the US, followed by the UK (ILO, 2021). Yet, despite these unequal territorial relations, scant research has emerged from economic geography to probe the impact of cloudwork platforms on unequal historical geographies. This paper provides an intervention to address this gap. We draw on two methodological approaches: the global value chains (GVCs) framework to explain the uneven power relations produced by cross-border economic activities; and Marxist political economy to analyse the dynamics of exploitation instituted by cloudwork platforms through the extraction of unpaid labour.

Cloudwork platforms engage armies of workers in data-commodity production. This data production is often part of a longer value chain providing raw material for artificial intelligence and other machines (in the case of microwork) or business process outsourcing. Like traditional value chains driven by multinational corporations, the relations involved in cloudwork – which we refer to as digital value networks (DVNs) – are governed by a central lead firm. However, the power of digital labour platforms, including cloudwork platforms, as lead firms is underpinned specifically by digital forms of governance that have not been fully investigated by scholarship on GVCs or global production networks (GPNs). The literature on value chains as well as on the platform economy and cloudwork rarely intersects with the growing research on unpaid labour, wage theft and labour market violations (see Bernhardt et al., 2009; Fine et al., 2021; Galvin, 2016; Papadopoulos et al., 2021). Marxist political economy provides specific conceptual tools to explain how the capitalist labour process relies on unpaid labour-time by design and therefore incentivizes managers to find ways of extracting ever more unpaid labour-time – through contractual means or wage theft (Cole et al., forthcoming). With few exceptions (see Pulignano et al., 2021), there is a lack of academic research on the intersection of unpaid labour and digital labour platforms, especially cloudwork. In this paper, we therefore examine the governance characteristics of cloudwork platforms as lead firms, specifically their use of spatial, digital and monopsony power to increase the ratio of paid to unpaid labour-time and to drive concentration through digital arbitrage.

The paper begins by critically engaging with GVC/GPN approaches and extending them to better describe global platform capitalism, especially its power regimes and spatially uneven outcomes. We elaborate on the concept of the DVN and situate cloudwork platforms as lead firms in these networks. This enables us to zoom in on the dynamics of DVN governance which we unite conceptually as digital arbitrage. We then turn to unpaid labour as a fundamental part of the capitalist labour process using a Marxist approach to elucidate the particular ways in which it manifests in cloud production. Having laid out these conceptual foundations, we elaborate on our methodological approach and present our key findings, showing that unpaid labour is systematically embedded into the governance of studied DVN. We draw on a survey undertaken by the authors in 2020, with 699 workers on 14 cloudwork platforms in 74 countries to demonstrate how workers in the global South perform a disproportionate amount of unpaid labour on cloudwork platforms.1 This reveals a key process by which cloudwork platforms enable territorially uneven value extraction.


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