Technology & the Future of Work Project

Workers in Ahmedabad, India and Lima, Peru

Technology is a key driver of change, not least in the world of work. In today’s global economy, trends in technology and trade have led to changes in the system of global production and exchange and to reductions in the employment intensity of growth; and, thereby, to changes in the nature of work and the structure of labor markets; all of which have contributed to an increase in informal employment (Kanbur 2014). Yet little is known about what technologies are used by – or impact on – the working poor in the informal economy, and in what ways.

Participatory Research with Informal Workers

In 2015, WIEGO and Practical Action undertook a collaborative one-year research project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to investigate what technologies are currently impacting – and are likely to impact – on the livelihoods of the working poor in positive or negative ways; how the working poor are responding to these impacts; and what technologies they need to enable their work, enhance their production, and secure their livelihoods.
As part of the project, the WIEGO network and Practical Action used desk-based and participatory research methods to explore the realities of informal workers in five cities: Ahmedabad, India (WIEGO in partnership with SEWA Academy); Dhaka, Bangladesh; Durban, South Africa (WIEGO in partnership with Asiye eTafuleni); Lima, Peru (WIEGO and Practical Action with their respective local research teams); and Nairobi, Kenya.

Key Findings

The findings show that across different occupations from street vendors and market traders, waste pickers, non-motorized transport operators, construction workers, garment workers, incense stick rollers, and market porters, the key technologies used by most workers who participated in the study are quite basic. While the new or emerging technologies identified by workers are also quite basic, the costs and risks associated with adopting these newer technologies to increase productivity, competitiveness or incomes were well understood by workers.

“If it weren't for the sack, how would we carry our stuff? Without a sack we could not work.” - A waste picker from Lima

In addition to the basic technologies used by informal workers, the study explored informal workers’ use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for their work and organizing efforts. Though some garment workers and construction workers reported using mobile phones to document designs or their previous work, the use of ICTs for work is relatively limited. However, worker organizations are beginning to use mobile phones and social media for organizing.

“(A mobile phone) enables us to contact customers about their orders. It allows me to convey information in a speedy manner." - A street vendor from Durban

In examining what is driving technological change, and whether/how informal workers respond, the findings suggest that emerging technologies impact the working poor in several ways – both positive and negative; that informal workers can and do adapt to technological disruptions; but their ability to do so is helped or hindered by a variety of external factors:

“If we have two machines, we can produce more. We can’t pay our house rent or our electricity bill on time due to our low earnings. Sometimes we can’t afford the cost of repairing our sewing machine.” - A garment worker from Ahmedabad

Finally, and most importantly, the findings suggest that city-level systems and city-level policies and practices have significant impact on informal workers, their livelihoods and their ability to adapt to technological change. An unpredictable, often hostile, policy and regulatory environment serves to inhibit the livelihood strategies of informal workers, including their choice and use of technologies:

“I sell from a small bag. If I sell more, the municipal police (serenos) come and seize my things.”   - A street vendor from Lima

Read the full report of findings from the WIEGO Network

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