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Labour futures: Intersectional responses to southern digital platform economies

Posted by Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon at Dec 31, 2020 12:00 AM |
It is our great pleasure to announce that we are undertaking a two-year research project to comprehensively analyse dominant and emerging sectors in India’s platform economies. The project is funded by a research grant of USD 200,000 from the Internet Society Foundation.


The works emerging from this project will directly inform the ongoing challenges that various stakeholders are encountering in negotiating policy-making for the platform economy. It will attempt to address these challenges by bringing forth a southern and worker-first understanding of the platform economy. In the immediate term, the project will speak to labour law "reforms" underway in India. In the long term, it will engage with historical and forthcoming policy discourse regionally and in India around regulation of e-commerce, trade, competition, and digital platforms.


Few recent developments in recent times have attracted as much public and scholarly and policy attention as the platform economy (and it’s various terminologies such as sharing/gig/on-demand economy). While it is widely acknowledged that the platform economy is rapidly growing, very little is known about its size other than monetary estimates of market size. Reliable quantitative data on even some of the fundamental aspects of the platform economy has been unavailable. Platform companies have been notoriously averse to publishing open datasets, and the dispersed nature of the platforms and their workforces has made data collection particularly challenging. Innovative methodologies of data collection are urgent.

Another reason for the increasing attention has been the increasing embeddedness of platforms in urban infrastructures, and their central role in urban life. Several camps building approaches to and analyses of the platform economy have already been set-up across and within disciplines. Economists have offered a narrative of platform work that emphasises efficiency and opportunity, with some discussion of disruption of employment relations. Sociological work has focused on two main topics to explain outcomes for platform work—precarity, which focuses on employment classification and insecure labour, and technological control via algorithms. Both of these suggest exploitative experiences of platform labour.

Despite a global proliferation of digital platforms and their integration within numerous urban operations, much of the examination around these tools has tended to focus on their implementation within northern cities. Qualitative work in southern contexts is growing, and has been rich, but has often used similar analytical lenses as work in the North. This is showcased by the outsized attention paid in scholarship to models of labour platformisation referred to with the monikers ‘Uberisation’ and ‘Uber for X’, which limit the imagination of the platform economy to on-demand work. This research team’s work of platformisation in the domestic work sector in India has shown how such work, while crucial, essentialises a male and techno-centric formulation of the experiences of platform labour. There is an urgent need for a southern-led analytic approach to platform economies, which emphasises labour force intersectionalities, informalities in southern contexts, connections to conventional labour markets economics and regulation, and institutional voids in southern economies.

Hypothesis and research questions

The central hypothesis for this research project is that the generation of systematic macro-level data and robust regulatory documentation will lead to effective policy-making and advocacy. This can achieve secure and gainful labour market outcomes for workers in rapidly digitising southern economies. Achieving these outcomes will require multi-pronged strategies that can create pathways for structural changes. Such strategies include top-down approaches which will support regulatory and legislative policies, and judicial action through evidence-building. We will also focus on the embedding of bottom-up approaches in regulatory processes such as through workers’ organisation and resistance.

The broad research questions for this project are:

  • What are the determinants and characteristics, historical and emergent, of digital platform entities’ recruitment, workforce management and economic value creation strategies?

  • What institutional roles, vis-à-vis civil society, markets and the state, are digital platform entities in the global south(s) occupying and seeking to occupy?

  • What are (a) regulatory, (b) corporate policy and (c) individual/collective labour responses that can generate equitable and gainful outcomes for workers in the digital platform economies?

Research team

The research project will be led by Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon, along with Amber Sinha. Shayna Robinson, from the Internet Society Foundation, will be supporting our endeavours.

Work with us

The success of this project will be contingent on inter/trans-disciplinary approaches to generate sustainable and gainful work outcomes for the bodies labouring in the platform economies. In addition to stakeholder groups directly engaged in the platform economies, we plan to work with a diverse set of individuals and groups, including public interest technologists, economists, practitioners, labour and technology historians, and designers.

If you are interested in contributing to this project and collaborating on similar agendas, do reach out to either Aayush Rathi ([email protected]) or Ambika Tandon ([email protected]).

Do keep an eye out on CIS’s website and social media handles for listings of specific work opportunities on this and other projects. One such opportunity is here.