Under the cover of Internet invisibility, companies around the globe are using online gig platforms to break labor laws and violate human rights. The so-called gig economy (more akin to digital piecework) is exacerbating poverty and inequality, particularly in the Global South, by circumventing existing labor standards and imposing harsh working conditions and low wages on millions of workers. I was one of those workers, and I was recently fired, after seven years, for speaking up.
I had been working as a researcher at the New York-based company Ask Wonder in order to supplement my income as a freelance journalist in Mexico. The company provides personalized research reports to mostly corporate clients, who pay $150-200 (USD) per hour, or a custom rate, depending on the plan they’re on. While most full-time staff and executives are based in the US, almost all researchers live in Global South countries and earn $12.75 to $21.25 per hour, depending on tiers determined by internal auditing (those with an auditing score of 19/20 or more are paid the highest rates). The people doing the auditing are fellow freelance researchers, who score research based on set criteria.
Workers like myself were being paid just 10-15% of what clients paid for the research reports we wrote. The pay includes casual loading—a payment that is made in addition to one’s base wage in lieu of job security and basic benefits like sick days, retirement, health, and maternity leave. It includes rush fees, a standard practice in freelancing to compensate for work that has to be completed within 24-48 hours. After taking out casual loading and rush fees, the real base hourly pay rate amounted to $8.40 to $14. The research is high-level and specialized, requiring years of experience using health databases and marketing reports, and most workers have one or multiple degrees.
To get paid work, we would first have to join an online dashboard queue and wait for an assignment. I’d often enter the queue at around the 34th position, and I would routinely have to wait 16-20 hours before making it to the front of the queue, at which point I would be assigned, typically, just three hours of work. Often, I would reach the end of the queue late at night and would have to log off to sleep and start over in the morning, so it was common to wait up to four days before being assigned work. Other times, I would accept work at 11PM on a Sunday night, or get up at 5AM to finish a report. Not knowing how fast the queue would move, I would be watching it all day, afraid to leave the house to pay a bill or run an errand; I would regularly put my open laptop on a chair in the bathroom when I showered just in case work arrived.
The dash queue functions as an algorithmic mechanism by which gig and digital companies can shift enterprise risk onto workers themselves, with no corresponding compensation. Instead of the company bearing the responsibility for fluctuating client requests or sales numbers, workers bear the burdens of adjusting to those fluctuations, which translate to erratic work schedules, variable workloads and take-home pay week to week, etc. Digital platforms promote these burdens as benefits under the banner of worker “flexibility.” Workers like myself are meant to accept the lack of social security, holidays, sick days, certainty of work, etc. in exchange for choosing when we work. But at Ask Wonder, we could not choose when we would be assigned work; and when we were given an assignment, we typically had no more than seven hours to complete it. That’s what “flexibility” meant for us.
Gig workers are parents (usually women), migrants without access to formal work (in Argentina and Chile, over 70% of gig workers are migrant workers), underpaid professionals who need more income, people working from home due to mental or physical disabilities, and unemployed people covering costs while searching for work. It is these already-vulnerable people who bear the brunt of fluctuating or decreased sales for companies like Ask Wonder.
There’s also a lot of unpaid labor involved in gig work. For instance, we were often made (or else we would lose our jobs) to complete unpaid training and testing exercises, even though labor laws in the US and in most countries require that workers be paid for such obligatory training. Some freelancers, moreover, were doing customer service work on a 40-hour-per-week schedule, without receiving any full-time benefits, which is also illegal. Then the company would hold voluntary Friday trivia sessions to try to create “community” and loyalty.
In mid-July, the Ask Wonder senior director posted the following message in the researchers’ Slack channel: “In today’s competitive environment, you either change or get left behind… the question is, will you? Your value here is your brand of creativity, the ideas you have for our business, the strategies you have for research… It’s your choice whether or not you believe we… value you, and whether or not you get left behind.”
I responded to that post, reminding the senior director that there are tangible, measurable ways a company demonstrates how much it values its workers, and that it is not simply a matter of perception for workers who chose “whether or not [to] believe” their employer values them. “Pay, dash waits and other material conditions are core attributes of” the workplace relationship and determine if we feel valued, I wrote. Many of my fellow workers expressed support for the content of my response.
Three days later, I went to log into the dash queue and the Slack channel, only to find I’d been blocked from both, after working for the company for over seven years. An hour later, I got an email from Ask Wonder. With no further explanation, the email curtly informed me that “Our journey together… has come to an end. We’ve chosen to release you from our contract effective immediately.”
Digital abuse of the Global South
The online work market is estimated to be worth $5 billion (USD) and served by 48 million workers, most of whom are concentrated in the Global South. India supplies 25% of web-based labor, but garners just 3% of global revenue from digital labor platforms. The profits are instead channeled to the Global North. A lot of US companies are outsourcing their tech and digital work to Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia.
While companies in the US and Europe rake in enormous profits, they are able to justify and exploit atrocious conditions for digital workers under the cover provided by the normalization and acceptance of poverty in the Global South, coupled with the myth of lower costs of living. Sadly, this extractive hoarding is nothing new: Rich countries drained $152 trillion (USD) in raw materials and human labor from the Global South between 1960 and 2021, to say nothing of the untold riches and resources that were pillaged during centuries of colonization prior to that.
Living in a Global South country is not cheaper than living in the Global North. Many expenses, like online subscriptions, cost the same no matter where you live. Imported goods such as non-perishable food, hygiene products, and electronics also cost the same. Healthcare costs vary according to each country’s public policies, and according to individual needs and demographics (healthcare is more expensive for women).
Rent is usually cheaper in the Global South, but quality of life is also much lower. I love where I live, but I am also accustomed to sewage overflowing from a manhole at the main entrance to my building, I can’t sleep at night because water trucks are pumping water at 1AM, and I shower twice a week due to the lack of water. Add to that the daily reality of the mafia, who control the streets here, the impunity for perpetrators of femicide, corruption, and more, and you can see how lower rents here are offset by other “costs of living.” Exploitative and abusive work conditions only make things worse. Poorer countries have also been harder hit by inflation, climate change, and food scarcity. Lower-income earners have been more affected by inflation, too, because they spend more of their income on essential goods and services, which have had greater price increases than non-essentials (as Barbara Ehrenreich famously put it, it’s quite expensive to be poor).
Online companies use gig work and the Global South to dodge work laws
Under Article 330 of Mexico’s amended Federal Work Law, remote or “telework” companies have to provide computers and ergonomic chairs for their workers, and pay for their internet and a proportional amount of home electricity bills. Many other countries have similar laws and regulations concerning paid training, overtime, higher rates for weekend work, or obligatory social security contributions, even for casual workers.
Instead of meeting their legal and ethical obligations, gig and digital companies use the cover and impunity of cross-border hiring to offload workspace costs to workers, and to offload management costs to auditing, rating, and dash tech services. Ask Wonder and other such companies dodge their responsibilities by classifying workers as “self-employed,” yet such workers are denied the autonomy attributed to entrepreneurs or genuinely independent contractors when companies use evaluations and algorithmic work assignment and monitoring systems like dash queues. Small business owners set their own prices, while companies from Wonder to Uber decide pay rates, because they are, in fact, employers—they’ve just found, through technology, a convenient means of evading all the responsibilities of employers, including adhering to basic labor laws or internationally recognized human rights. Firing someone for speaking up about pay rates, for instance, is a violation of the right to free speech (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
15 articles a day
Mateo is another professional in Mexico who had to turn to gig work to supplement his income. (Out of fear of retaliation from his former employer, Mateo’s real name has been replaced with a pseudonym.) For TRNN, I interviewed him in July. Mateo was hired by Alivia Media via LinkedIn in 2021, and he worked for them for almost a year. Headquartered in Miami, Florida, the content company hires people from around Latin America.
Mateo was initially told to write 10 short articles a day, six days a week, for which he would be paid $500 (USD) a month, with no other benefits. “As the months passed, the amount of work increased, but not the pay. Eventually, they were asking for 15 articles, and they increased the requirements for each article; wanting more links, more SEO,” Mateo said.
In addition to the articles,“They also made me watch videos all day… The money wasn’t enough to cover my expenses,” he said, explaining that the company made him watch the videos and Facebook content so the view numbers would go up.
“I felt very exploited,” he continued. “I basically had to work 12 or 13 hours a day. The boss was very rude. And one day, they fired me, because I updated some of the older articles. They tried to not pay me for the last month—but I spoke up, and they did.”
Insider Inc. (formerly Business Insider), the New York-based, majority German-owned media company, has also been using underhanded strategies to deny its Mexican workers basic rights. Workers recently took to social media to denounce Insider’s labor practices, saying that the company uses harassment and intimidation to avoid its severance pay obligations, that it doesn’t pay overtime, that racial and class-based discrimination is rampant, that it pays a lower wage than it advertises for, and that it even registers workers as having a lower salary than they really do when filing information with the social security system, which means the company has to pay less.
There are countless other examples. US and Canadian call center companies frequently seek remote bilingual workers in Mexico, whom they can pay much less. TTEC, a US customer service tech company, recently advertised openings for workers “available to work any shift, including nights and weekends,” for a “maximum” monthly pay of 9,700 pesos, or $560 (USD). As Kevin, a gig worker in Kenya doing transcription work, told Alex J. Wood and Mark Graham at the New Internationalist, “It’s so insecure… unless you have ten clients; then you can breathe.” A Nigerian man working as a virtual assistant for a US company told Graham and Wood that working all night and keeping pace with irregular work hours was leaving him exhausted.
The issue isn’t that companies have a global workforce; the issue is that they discriminate by paying people in other countries much less and making them work under worse conditions, even though those same pay rates and working conditions wouldn’t be tolerated by full timers in the same countries where those companies are based.
Covertly creating poverty and disposable workers
A few months ago at Wonder, one of the administrators posted a survey in the gig workers’ Slack channel asking for feedback on their plan to begin a monthly competition to reward good work. Because responses were displayed anonymously, a number of people responded truthfully, after months and years of silence: they didn’t want competitions, they wanted decent pay.
The precariousness of the work, and the devaluing of workers (despite the company claiming the contrary) reflected in both pay and the way it would so quickly fire people, cultivates a constant state of fear and self-censorship. That, combined with the largely invisible nature of digital Global South workers, makes it hard for digital workers to organize and defend themselves, and US-based digital companies are taking advantage of that situation.
By abusing Global South workers and paying them much less, these digital companies are reinforcing poverty and magnifying inequality. Borders, supposedly irrelevant to the Internet, are cemented by such pay gaps. Increased labor precariousness has been demonstrated to increase poverty, while informal employment—persistently high in the Global South, and severely exacerbated by the digital economy—clearly contributes to inequality.
There is no law of nature that low prices and low wages in Mexico go hand in hand, or that one necessarily causes (and justifies) the other. These conditions are the result of global power imbalances. Dignified living for everyone involves ending poverty, rather than entitled discourse that the Global South deserves less.