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The rise of the planetary labour market – and what it means for the future of work

IN SPACE - JULY 17: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) on July 17, 2014, German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst took this image of the Earth reflecting light from the sun whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Gerst returned to earth on November 10, 2014 after spending six months on the International Space Station completing an extensive scientific programme, known as the 'Blue Dot' mission (after astronomer Carl Sagan's description of Earth, as seen on a photograph taken by the Voyager probe from six billion kilometres away). (Photo by Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images)

This will be the first year in human history in which a majority of the world’s population is connected to the internet. The internet is therefore no longer a network that primarily connects wealthy people in wealthy countries. The rest of the world is quickly coming online, and only about a quarter of the world’s internet users are now European or North American.

One of the most significant implications of this connectivity for many people outside of the world’s economic cores is the creation of a planetary labour market in which millions of jobs can now be done from almost anywhere on Earth. A mass migration of labour, but not of people.

Some of the impacts of this planetary labour market are being observed in the most unlikely of places. A few months ago, I visited an artificial intelligence training centre in a rural town in Central Africa. Getting there involved a day-long drive from the nearest international airport. It was here, in a place where many people still live in thatched huts and few families possess any of the technological gadgets of the contemporary world, that workers are helping to build some of the world’s most advanced technologies and services.

In a large open-plan office with hundreds of desks and computers, workers spend eight hours a day doing highly repetitive work like matching names to photographs of minor celebrities they’ve never heard of, or identifying objects in photos of suburban America in cities that they will never go to. What these tasks have in common with the dozens of other routines performed in the room is that computers cannot yet perform them as effectively as humans. Real people are needed to structure, classify, and tag an enormous amount of unstructured information for companies using machine learning algorithms in products like autonomous vehicles and next-generation search engines.

What is most interesting about this work is that the workers themselves are never actually told much about what they are doing. They know, for instance, that they need to repeatedly tell a computer what the difference between a tree and a building is; but are never told anything about the end client, such as their name, location, or what this information is for. This is the ultimate in alienated labour: people doing work for companies they know nothing about, building products and services they will probably never use.

It is worth remembering that what we are seeing now is far from new. The mass outsourcing of manufacturing from high-wage to low-wage economies began in the 1970s. The 1990s saw a significant amount of jobs outsourced and offshored in the IT services sector. In both of those industries, outsourcing firms faced substantial risk and cost to reconfigure their production networks to take advantage of what some people referred to as a ‘global reserve army’ in distant labour markets. However, the planetary labour market that some firms are attempting to build today is qualitatively and quantitatively different from previous rounds of outsourcing in three primary ways.

First, the nature of work itself has changed. One outcome of computerising and digitising almost every profession has been the increasing modularisation and standardisation of work. This fact contributes to the commodification of labour power by allowing work to be traded at the level of the micro-task. As an employer, you can more easily hire on a per-click or per-task, rather than per-person basis. Nowhere is this more apparent than on global online outsourcing platforms such as Upwork.com or Freelancer.com that connect clients with workers anywhere in the world, sometimes to do tasks that might only take a few minutes. Those two platforms alone have a combined potential workforce of 38 million people from almost every country on Earth.

Second, a core reason why we are heading towards a planetary labour market is because the market for a lot of labour is now truly planetary. In the past, labour markets needed bounded places and times in order for employers to find workers and workers to find jobs. But with most people in the world now connected to the internet, some of the spatial barriers that once defined labour markets are less relevant. This is not an argument that geography is irrelevant. Far from it. What need would we have to outsource jobs if wage levels, skills, and the availability of workers in every place was the same? Economic geography therefore matters more and matters less at the same time.

So if we accept the first point (that ever more types of work can be outsourced) and the second point (this outsourcing can happen to ever more places), we arrive at a third. Namely, that a lot of jobs are becoming extremely footloose. To switch the location of a job from one place to another can now be as simple as sending some emails or clicking some buttons. There is often no need for companies to build factories or offices, train workers, or even pay local taxes. A small business in London can hire a freelance web developer in Mumbai one day and Manila the next. By quickly, cheaply, and almost seamlessly moving its production networks around the world in this way, the small business in London leaves behind no fixed infrastructure and no visible traces in the cities in which it was once an employer.

The hundreds of workers in Central Africa now training the next generation of autonomous vehicles, and the millions of distributed online platform workers in other locations around the world, are examples that show us not that work will go anywhere on the planet, but that it can. And while we have had a world marked by worries about offshoring for decades, we have never had one characterised by mass digital connectivity, or by labour commodified to such a high degree that it can be so easily and quickly transmitted across space.

One could argue that this planetary labour market carries the potential to accrue significant benefits for both labour and capital. Employers can find workers for any imaginable task, and workers are longer constrained by the limitations of their local labour markets. Indeed, the African machine learning trainers have highly sought-after jobs. They earn above average wages, and received job perks like free lunches and on-site childcare, a significant improvement from almost anything else available in the local labour market.

However, this example of a responsible employer sadly appears to be the exception rather than the rule. When labour is treated as a commodity to be easily bought and sold, it becomes economically irrational for the millions of employers engaging in outsourcing to invest meaningfully in workers. The employers in online outsourcing platforms, for instance, almost always tend to place the burden of training, infrastructure, and risk upon the worker themselves. The global competition within a planetary labour market exerts huge downward pressure on wages and working conditions. It is not uncommon to find people working for below national minimum wages, or working 48 hour shifts because a highly precarious work environment makes them concerned about when they’ll get their next gig. As production networks quickly reconfigure themselves across the surface of the globe, with jobs moved out of a place as quickly as they were moved in, it matters little to employers if labour power is left unused.

None of this should be taken as an argument for a return to a geographically bounded world of work. Every year hundreds of millions of new people from ever poorer segments of the world’s population connect to the internet, and – like the rest of us – will be looking for decent work. But the situation described above is only one example of how capital, labour, computers, and a globe-spanning communication network can be interlinked. Just because a labour market can be everywhere does not mean it is nowhere, and this is why we continue to have institutions to govern and regulate it. It is those institutions – governments, trade unions, civil society, and international organisations – that must rise to the challenge of not just thinking globally, but also acting globally if we want a planetary labour market that is anything but a race to the bottom.

Mark Graham is the professor of internet geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, a faculty fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, a senior research fellow at Green Templeton College, and an associate in the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.