20. Digital labour and informal economy: transformation and challenges

Diego Coletto, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, diego.coletto@unimib.it

Iraklis Dimitriadis, Università degli Studi di Milano, iraklis.dimitriadis@unimi.it

Panel session
Digital labor platforms (DLPs) mediate work, allowing different economic actors – e.g., workers, firms, clients – to digitally interact in order to provide or acquire goods and services. An increasing number of studies focused the attention to benefits, challenges and risks for workers who are involved in various forms of digital economy and DLPs (ILO 2021). In some cases, DLPs have been considered as sources of job opportunities, especially for vulnerable social groups or marginalised populations. Employment through DLPs can also become an opportunity for workers to complement their incomes, whereas other benefits associated with this type of jobs concern autonomy and flexibility.

In other cases, studies pointed out the spread of various forms of self-employment and non-standard work in the DLPs, with high levels of uncertainty concerning income and work time (De Stefano 2016; Srnicek 2016; Stewart and Stanford 2017). Furthermore, the spread of DLPs has been associated with a growing capacity for control of the labour processes and workers by employers (Wood et al. 2019). 

In general, most part of studies on DLPs focused the attention on the main changes of the formal/regular work and challenges for workers due to the “platformization” of some traditional economic sectors (Lee 2021; Purcell and Brook 2020; van Doorn and Vijay 2021). Less attention was given to the relations between DLPs and the informal economy (Cieslik et al. 2021; Weber et al. 2021). About this topic, some studies showed conflicting results: on one hand, DLPs produced formalisation processes that affected workers employed in sectors traditionally characterised by high degrees of informality (e.g., transport, delivery, commerce, services, and domestic work); on the other hand, the spread of DLPs has been accompanied by the creation of new informalities concerning working conditions and working practices.

The main aim of this panel is to explore and gain a deeper understanding on the imbrications between the informal economy and the DLPs. We thus invite empirical and methodological contributions from both the Global South and North with the aim to understand how global phenomena, such as the informal economy and the DLPs, modulate their forms and relations within different institutional and cultural contexts. There are some questions that we would like to explore starting from the discussion of the contributions we will collect for the panel:

– How does DLPs affect the informal economy and workers in occupations that have been traditionally characterised by high level of informality?
– What are the meanings associated to the formal and informal work in location-based platform economy?
– How do (in)formal workers perceive their engagement in DLPs? What are the meanings they attribute to this kind of employment?
– How does the spread of DLPs affect the working practices of informal workers?

– How does DLPs affect informal workers who have been labelled as “essential workers” during the COVID-19 crisis?
– What are the methodological implications for the study of informal workers engaged in DLPs?
– What are the empirical and ethical problems and dilemmas in conducting ethnography on DLPs?

Keywords: digital economy, platform economy, informal economy, employment relations, meanings of work, formalization process, precarity

Sub-disciplines: Sociology of work, Anthropology, Labour studies, Industrial relations, Urban ethnography

Cieslik, K., Banya, R., & Vira, B. (2021). Offline contexts of online jobs: Platform drivers, decent work, and informality in Lagos, Nigeria. Development Policy Review, (September 2021), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/dpr.12595

De Stefano, V. (2016). The rise of the just-in-time workforce: On-demand work, crowdwork, and labor protection in the gig-economy. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal,. Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 37(3), 471–504. https://heinonline.org/hol-cgi-bin/get_pdf.cgi?handle=hein.journals/cllpj37&section=34

ILO (2021). World Employment and Social Outlook. The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work. International Labour Office. Geneva. https://doi.org/10.54394/dspl5113

Lee, Y. (2021). After a Global Platform Leaves: Understanding the Heterogeneity of Gig Workers through Capital Mobility. Critical Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205211055912

Orleans Reed, S. (2022), “Essential and disposable? Or just disposable?” Informal workers during COVID-19. In Alfers, L., Chen, M., Plagerson, S. (Eds.) Social Contracts and Informal Workers in the Global South, Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar (pp. 189-215).

Purcell, C., & Brook, P. (2020).  At Least I’m My Own Boss! Explaining Consent, Coercion and Resistance in Platform Work . Work, Employment and Society, 095001702095266. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017020952661

Stewart, A., & Stanford, J. (2017). Regulating work in the gig economy: What are the options? Economic and Labour Relations Review, 28(3), 420–437. https://doi.org/10.1177/1035304617722461

van Doorn, N., & Vijay, D. (2021). Gig work as migrant work: The platformization of migration infrastructure. Environment and Planning A, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308518X211065049

Weber, C. E., Okraku, M., Mair, J., & Maurer, I. (2021). Steering the transition from informal to formal service provision: Labor platforms in emerging-market countries. Socio-Economic Review, 19(4), 1315–1344. https://doi.org/10.1093/ser/mwab008

Wood, A. J., Graham, M., Lehdonvirta, V., & Hjorth, I. (2019). Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy. Work, Employment and Society, 33(1), 56–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017018785616

Short bio
Diego Coletto

Diego Coletto, PhD in Economic Sociology, is Associate Professor in Economic Sociology and Sociology of Labour at the Department of Sociology and Social Research, University of Milano-Bicocca (Milan, Italy). He teaches Sociology of development; he was President of the bachelor’s degree (BSc) course in Organization Sciences. His research topics are: Informal economy; Sociology of development; Employment relations; Urban ethnography; Sociology of work; Street-level bureaucracy. In general, he published two books and various articles in international and national journals, as well as chapters in edited volumes on the topics of the informal economy, unemployment, street level bureaucracy and sociology of work.

Iraklis Dimitriadis

Iraklis Dimitriadis is a research fellow at the Department of Social and Political Sciences of the University of Milan. He received his PhD in Sociology and Methodology of Social Research from the University of Milan and University of Torino with the distinction of Doctor Europaeus. He holds a Master’s degree in Geopolitics from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in France, and a Bachelor’s degree in International and European Studies from the University of Macedonia in Greece. Iraklis’ current research focuses on migration governance and asylum crisis in Italy, while in recent years he has developed research on labour migration and integration, citizenship and identity, religion and immigration and labour studies.

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