Research Paper

Platform work in developing economies: Can digitilisation drive structural transformation?

This paper discusses the expansion or penetration of digital economic activity in the context of developing economies, and what this may mean for economic or structural transformations for countries in the global South.

This paper discusses the expansion or penetration of digital economic activity in the context of developing economies, and what this may mean for economic or structural transformations for countries in the global South. We ask what possibilities new jobs and forms of work in the digital economy hold – in particular platform work – for the productive transformation of economies in ways that contribute to achieving the goals of human, inclusive and sustainable development. What are the impacts on work and workers in this process? The question of whether a ‘digital transformation’ can spur development and, if so, how and to whose benefit, depends in large part on the nature of employment created, and whether labour can move to higher-productivity sectors which raise incomes while also strengthening the capacity to finance public goods and services, including social protection.

This paper provides a synthesis of literature and debates – conceptual, historical and empirical – linking work in the digital economy with ideas of ‘structural transformation’ and development. Our analysis of historical processes of structural transformation and of the conditions of work associated with contemporary digital platforms points to a range of obstacles to development and, in particular, the breakdown of links between skills, productivity, value and wages, limited capacity of states to invest in relevant infrastructure, and the concentration of capital with access to a global supply of labour. We conclude by considering policy actions that would be needed to direct digital economic transformation towards sustainable, fair and inclusive development.

‘Much of the debate on the impact of digital technologies on the world of work(ers) has been speculative and, where substantiated by empirical evidence, it has stemmed primarily from the global North’.