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Digital labour platforms in Pakistan: institutional voids and solidarity networks

Fareesa Malik (NUST Business School, National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan)
Richard Heeks (Centre for Digital Development, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)
Silvia Masiero (Department of Informatics, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway)
Brian Nicholson (Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 29 January 2021

Issue publication date: 18 November 2021

1005

Abstract

Purpose

While digital labour platforms are being increasingly studied across the Global South, the existing literature does not conceptualise the theoretical link between such platforms and socio-economic development. This paper theorises such a link drawing on the notion of institutional voids defined, as in Khanna and Palepu (2010), as “the absence of intermediaries to efficiently connect buyers and sellers” in an economy. We frame digital labour platforms as means to fill institutional voids, seeking to create “development” in the form of earning opportunities in contexts of deprivation.

Design/methodology/approach

We draw on an interpretive case study of an online work training project in a deprived region of Pakistan, where members of marginalised communities were trained to become freelancers for global digital labour platforms. We use the notion of market-enabling institutions aimed at filling institutional voids as a lens to study the project's declared goals, examining the extent to which these were met in practice for the workers who participated in the training.

Findings

Our analysis reveals three types of market-enabling institutions–credibility enhancers, aggregators and distributors, and transaction facilitators–through which digital labour platforms seek to fill institutional voids. However, workers' narratives reveal that institutional voids are only partially filled by these platforms, and their perpetuation results in diverse forms of power asymmetries leveraged by clients and owners of the platforms. We also observe the formation of solidarity networks among workers, networks that are intra-familial and societal rather than characterised by formal unionisation.

Originality/value

The paper offers a novel perspective to theorise the link between digital labour and socio-economic development. Applying such a perspective in a Global South context, it also finds the limits of the digital platforms' institutional void-filling potential, highlighting the emergence of power asymmetries and the emerging formation of worker solidarity networks.

Keywords

Citation

Malik, F., Heeks, R., Masiero, S. and Nicholson, B. (2021), "Digital labour platforms in Pakistan: institutional voids and solidarity networks", Information Technology & People, Vol. 34 No. 7, pp. 1819-1839. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-04-2020-0218

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

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