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Dr Ming Lim is a reader (associate professor) at the University of Liverpool Management School. She gained her PhD at the University of Cambridge, an MPhil from Oxford University, and a BA from the National University of Singapore.

She appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the emergence of the gig economy and the impact it is having both on workers, who can often inadvertently become ‘digital slaves’.

5 shareable snippets about the rise of digital slavery

  1. Click farms: a new frontier for 21st century work
    As remote working and self-employment continues to grow, thousands of apps and platforms have developed to fuel the gig economy across every sector.

    Click farms, where workers bid to secure a particular job, offer a vast range of services. From trawling the internet to alert platform owners about offensive images on their sites, through to mass ‘liking’ of company pages in order to influence search algorithms. Dr Lim says: “These are workers who make their living literally clicking on a keyboard in order to complete pieces of work.”

    However, Dr Lim contends that these jobs are often irregular, vary in rates of pay, provide few protections to the people doing the work, and require workers to invest many hours simply searching for suitable work.
  2. Freedom comes at a cost
    Despite the drawbacks, many people are initially enticed to click farm work due to the promise of freedom and independence. With no commute and no office politics to consider, many view the downside of click farm work as a cost worth paying. But is it?

    “It’s precarious,” says Dr Lim. “It’s really a matter of luck which is unlike, for instance, a normal freelancing job or project work. If you were self-employed and you had a project or a commission from some company, you would be paid that amount and you would know for how long and with what benefits and so on. There’d be a written contract of employment.”

    By definition, ad hoc jobs in the gig economy rarely come with such protections. It is the removal of those securities that Dr Lim believes is starting to have profound effects on those involved.
  3. Accountability is a key issue
    Dr Lim is keen to separate platforms that offer people an extra revenue stream, such as Airbnb and Etsy to app or app-generated work, such as Deliveroo.

    Dr Lim explains: “There are reports of Deliveroo drivers going to a restaurant to pick up a meal. They’ve been told that they’ve got the job and they go, and then they’re told ‘oh well, it’s been given to another driver because you were 30 seconds too slow’. These things happen and you’re racing against the clock.”

    It is the “asymmetry of power and information” that most concerns Dr Lim. She says: “If your work is controlled by an app, you’re going to find yourself frustrated and… it’s going to be very difficult to know who or where you can go for help and support.”
  4. The consequences are becoming clearer
    One of Dr Lim’s interviewees recounted the tale of cycling for an eight-hour shift. When his shift ended at midnight, his muscles cramped all night – making him unable to sleep until 6am. A few hours later, he started his day job before doing another cycling shift that evening. The routine was relentless.

    She says: “It’s not physical slavery, although… in my interviews with gig workers, the emotional and physical as well as psychological stress on them is showing alarming signs of increasing all the time.”

    Dr Lim adds: “You don’t see… the physical chains on arms and legs and around the necks of people, but there are emotional scars.”
  5. Governments must do more
    Dr Lim believes governments could introduce stricter regulations and “show a willingness… to recognise that this is a growing problem in the gig economy”.

    She says: “There are stories that this could be multi-generational in nature. You have people now who’ve done very little except click-farm work […] so as they get older and get married and have children of their own, their children would never have seen their father or mother actually hold down a job.

    “We’re beginning to see the first generation of children whose parents have only ever been gig workers.”

    And Dr Lim suggests that this could pose as yet unknown challenges for society.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online business and management programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Operations and Supply Chain Management and our other management programmes.

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