Desmond T. Ayentimi, a senior lecturer of management at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania, reflects on his most recent paper, “Decent Gig Work in sub-Saharan Africa,” which he and his co-authors Hossein Ali Abadi (Edith Cowan University) and John Burgess (Torrens University Australia) published in the Journal of Industrial Relations.
My research interest is centered around employment relations, human resource management in developing countries, and the fourth industrial revolution within sub-Saharan African context. For this paper, I was motivated by the fact that to date, the research on gig work has focused on advanced capitalist economies, with only limited research coming from developing economies. So, there was the need to think about what gig work means and looks like in different contexts such as in sub-Sahara Africa (SSA).
Sub-Saharan Africa economies are deeply rooted in long-established economic and employment forms largely dictated by the informal economy. Unlike the discussion of gig work in advanced economies, the development of gig work in sub-Sahara Africa is within an environment where employment standards and labor regulations are largely absent. The concern in developed countries is that gig work erodes the norm of regulated formal employment; in developing economies gig work is part of the norm of informal and unregulated employment. This makes the role of gig work platforms in developing and transmitting decent work protocols into gig contracts in sub-Sahara Africa very crucial, but the challenge is how to realize this potential in Africa.
The most challenging aspect of conducting this research was access to data on gig work and prior literature on gig work within the context of sub-Sahara Africa. As in most countries across Africa, there are deficiencies with public institutions mandated to assemble systematic and timely national labor market data. As such, it was challenging to access data on the scale and magnitude of gig work in Africa broadly and in specific countries within SSA. We had to draw from anecdotal evidence from limited non-academic literature sources such as working papers, reports and other secondary data sources. I was surprised to find that sub-Sahara Africa, despite developing phone and internet networks, is not a recipient of the professional and well-paid gig jobs as many of the additional gig jobs found in the region are routine, low-paid, and require limited skill.
Our paper could not address these three important questions. First, does the advent of gig work in SSA have the same disruptive potential to work and employment conditions as found in advanced nations? Second, does gig work represent a source of new and meaningful employment or is it only mediating across existing jobs in SSA? Third, what was the experience of the gig workers? Did they see gig work as an opportunity or was gig work seen as a necessity in the absence of more secure and better-paid work?