Digitalisation and post-work utopias: A view from the global South


Many people in the global North are putting forward the idea of a future without wage-labour, including exploitative digitalised work.  Ruth Castel-Branco and Sandiswa Mapukata look at a redistribution of wealth which would allow people to both work and do meaningful social activities in their communities. But they wonder if this can be achieved in the global South.

Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disastrous impact on employment and has hastened the digitalisation of work.  Just in South Africa, and estimated 2.8 million South Africans lost their jobs – about two-thirds of them women.  This makes Aaaron Bastani’s book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism,  especially relevant.

A world without wage labour

Bastani charts the way forward to “a society where work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance, and labour and leisure blend into one another”.  The planet is facing an ecological, economic and social crisis, but he argues that technological innovation can produce abundance. It can also create the conditions for new social relations that relieve people from the drudgery of work.

Bastani is part of a growing group of scholars who are imagining an ideal, utopian world. Some people argue  for a world free from work – an  ‘anti-work’ politics in response to global restructuring, financialisation and automation. They suggest that The Left has been paralysed by an attachment to a bygone era and it is time to challenge the idea of the dignity of wage work. After all wage-work under capitalism is deeply alienating. It alienates workers from the means and process of production, from the product of their labour, from themselves and from each other.

Although ‘anti-work’ politics is popular in the global North, it is also gaining traction in the global South, where standard employment relationships (formal wage employment) have always been the exception. James Ferguson and Tania Li observe that wage-work is something people desire in many parts of the postcolonial South.  However, many countries are moving away from agriculture and in some cases deindustrialising. In this context, Ferguson and Li believe the idea of wage work must become less central.  

Impact of Digitilisation

At the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, the Future of Work(ers) research project has been grappling with how digital technologies are reshaping the world of work, and its impact on inequality in the global South. We see the future of work(ers) as a contested space between the state, capital and labour. We are especially interested in what sources of power workers can wield to improve their conditions of work. We are also interested in the redistribution of wealth such as the expansion of social welfare and how it has also been digitised. Countries of the global South are diverse in their levels of economic development, the structures of their labour markets, and the extent of digitalisation. For instance, in Colombia, over 70 per cent of the population has access to the internet, while in Mozambique only 10 per cent do. These differences have an impact on how digitalisation becomes part of the system or how it is resisted. Therefore, the research focuses on five case countries: Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Mozambique and South Africa (see Figure below).

Variation in access to digital technologies across the global South

Source: World Bank (2017), Gillwald and Mothobi (2019).

Importantly, digitalisation requires investment and a decision by companies to adopt new technologies with regard to labour costs and profitability.

In South Africa, studies project that between 35% and 67% of jobs are at risk of automation. However, in her analysis of the impact of automation on replacing labour,  Karmen Naidoo argues that low levels of capital accumulation (increasing assets),  and negative investment rates in the manufacturing sector in South Africa, may constrain the growth of automation.

In South Africa occupations most vulnerable to automation are linked to foreign investment, where there is a rapid global adoption of robots – for instance, in the automotive sector. Jobs least vulnerable to automation are in the service sector, particularly work requiring physical and manual skills.

However, many of the digitalised jobs in the service sector are very insecure. In South Africa, there are about 100,000 workers in web-based crowd work, also known as platform work.  This is freelance work on a platform such as Upwork.  Platform work uses an online platform to provide services or products in exchange for payment. Crowd work organises the outsourcing of tasks to a large pool of online workers rather than to a single employee. Technology is essential to this employment form as the matching of client and worker is carried out online.  In South Africa there are also about 35,000 workers who operate from location-based platforms (LBS) such as UberEats food deliverers.  LBS uses mobile phones which depend on the worker’s location to provide a service to the user.

The South African Labour Force Survey and administrative employer-employee matched data however, do not provide specific data on digital platform work to allow for a proper analysis of the scope and scale of work accessed through digital platforms and/or apps, such as  an Uber driver using the Uber app.  But early evidence on the conditions of platform workers suggests that most workers are incorrectly classified as independent contractors. In reality they are subject to an ‘authoritarian algorithmic management’ which is an employer disguised as an app.

Like other informal economy workers, platform workers often work long hours for very low wages. They have no paid leave, no social security and occupational health and safety protections, and they are trapped in debt because they take the full risk of their economic activity.  

In Mozambique there has been an increase in the use of digital platforms for taxi and food delivery services. However, many platform workers also access work through non-digital mechanisms, including personal networks,  mobile phones, WhatsApp and Facebook groups, and previous informal employment arrangements. In addition, they subsidise their income with other side hustles including agricultural work.

In other words, platform work is often an extension of existing forms of informality and the form it takes reflects broader patterns of the labour market. In Mozambique, where households cobble together a livelihood from a multiplicity of activities, platform work is just one mechanism among many. In contrast, in South Africa, platform tends to be workers’ primary source of income.

Despite the precarity of working conditions in the platform, new forms of organising are emerging among platform workers.

Platform workers and new forms of organising

In their study of Uber Eats in South Africa,  Edward Webster points to the emergence of hybrid collectives of workers. In other words workers belong to a combination of forms of organization such as a trade union using collective bargaining,  with a cooperative, or a jointly owned democratically run enterprise.  

These collectives in South Africa are often based along national lines, such as a group of Ugandans or Zimbabweans. They are both a source of mutual aid, as well as sites of organising around digitalised direct action. The Uber Eats strike in Gauteng in December 2020 is a case in point. Just before Christmas,  scooter drivers successfully stopped all delivery services, and demanded a minimum delivery fee with an increase during peak hours, free health and safety equipment, a disciplinary process before flagging or blocking a driver’s account, the reopening of physical hubs, and better support.

Although strike actions are ongoing until demands are met, past actions have resulted in small but concrete victories. As of January 2021, the Uber Eats strike action was still ongoing without any resolution in sight. Interestingly the drivers situated their demands in an international context:                               

The strike is to prove to Uber Eats that driver-partners are not illiterate individuals, but are paramount to Uber Eats’ success in South Africa and around the world…Uber Eats boasts huge profits, which sit in the billions of dollars, while totally neglecting and treating driver-partners like slaves.

(Uber Eats drivers 2020)

In Colombia, too, platform workers are increasingly organising transnationally. For instance, Rappi Inc. workers, who work for one of the most valuable digital platform companies in Latin America,  joined the National Movement of Digital Platform Workers. As part of the movement,  they founded the trade union UNIDAPP, which operates through an app. With the support of the Central Confederation of Workers of Colombia, they coordinated strike actions with other food delivery organisations across Latin America, including in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador.

This Colombian example points to the importance of the trade union movement in extending class struggle beyond the factory floor.

The research stemming from the Future of Work(ers) project also points to the interdependence between digital and non-digital forms of work.

New head

Some ‘anti-work’ scholars  (though not Bastani) argue that universal social welfare, universal basic income (UBI), otherwise known as a basic income grant (BIG), can become the basis for a radical politics of redistribution, centred away from the point of production.

In South Africa, less than 5% of unemployed people receive some kind of benefit from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) which they previously contributed to. Poor enforcement of the legal obligation for companies’ to ensure contributions to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF),  and widespread informal work where the UIF does not operate, are among the causes for low worker claims.

Because of South Africa’s racialised past and that the formal workforce is male driven,  the social security system excludes historically marginalised groups. Black people and women have often not worked  for long enough to accumulate  sufficient social security to cushion them in unemployment.

South Africa’s non-contributory social welfare system (pensions and grants) only covers 31% of the population, and female-headed households are the main beneficiaries. Unfortunately, the value of social grants is not enough to meet household needs, and so it undermines the objectives of state grants. Indeed,  nearly half of black African women live below the poverty line.

A universal income would provide income security for precarious workers in the formal and informal labour market,  and also allow them to engage in socially meaningful activities outside of the labour market. UBI could assist in reducing poverty and inequality, and also establish a wage below which workers could refuse to work. This would give workers greater power to negotiate conditions and strengthen trade unions.  All adults would receive the grant so the state could avoid the costly selection process and errors of inclusion or exclusion that are a drag on means-tested social welfare. It would also prevent capital from forcing workers into ultra-low-wage labour. (see SALB (2017) Volume 41.3)

But not all countries in the global South have enough resources to introduce a cost of living UBI. Growing literature and debates point to the possibility of a UBI in South Africa and Colombia. But this is not the case in Ethiopia and Mozambique where cash transfers are largely driven by international development agencies.

For instance, in Mozambique,  a universal cash transfer at a level high enough to transform class inequality would require budget allocations of 129% of the national budget. This means that rethinking redistribution requires reclaiming and restructuring production. In agrarian contexts of the global South, there needs to be a political relationship  between land, labour and social welfare.

Importantly, reclaiming production means moving politics away from direct labour-capital relations. Instead, it means that we need to pursue a politics that seeks to improve both productive and reproductive (work in the home) labour, formal and informal work, and paid and unpaid labour.

Analysis and Insight on South AFrican Labour

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About the author

Ruth Castel-Branco
Research Manager: Future of Work at South Centre for Inequality Studies | + posts

Ruth Castel-Branco is the Research Manager on the Future of Work(ers) project at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS), University of the Witwatersrand.

Sandiswa Mapukata
Research Associate at South Centre for Inequality Studies | + posts

Sandiswa Mapukata is a research associate on the Future of Work(ers) project at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS), University of the Witwatersrand.


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