Technology and the Future of Work

Erik Lønne

In 2014, in partnership with WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) and Practical Action, Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) played a central part in a research project exploring the role and impact of technology used by informal workers, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The project, aptly named “Technology and the Future of Work”, focused on the way technology in the broad sense of the term is imagined and reimagined, purposed and repurposed in the life of informal workers. A seminal insight in this regard is how the use of technology differs greatly within the sub-sectors of the informal economy and is shaped by the variations of the available resources.

A typical fieldwork sheet illustrating the photo-documentation method, this one of a grass mat maker from Durban, South Africa. Photos: Richard Dobson.

Through focus groups, photo documentation, phone surveys and micro-narratives, informal workers shared their insights concerning how they make use of both existing and emerging technologies when working in markets, on the streets and in their homes. These experiences culminated in the article, “Technology, informal workers and cities: insights from Ahmedabad (India), Durban (South Africa) and Lima (Peru)”, written by Martha Chen (2016) in the Environment and Urbanisation Journal (October 2016, Volume 28, Number 2), underlining the entrepreneurship and ingenuity, in addition to the unique solutions that emerge in local contexts around the globe.

An important note of course, as Chen points to, is that technology in this frame and context is “(…) defined as the tools or equipment that workers, specifically informal workers, use in their work, and related know-how and skills” (ibid., p. 407).

An image of the wooden board utilised by incense stick rollers in Ahmadabad, India. Photo: Radha Rameshbhai.

In Durban, the micro-narratives proved especially fruitful, as workers around Warwick Junction shared both their insights, but also grievances and challenges. For example, the article highlights the way a Warwick based water porter has repurposed a trolley with two bread crates to fashion a more effective way of supplying much needed water to the vendors around the market. The invention of new technology is therefore a valuable variable in the total equation when considering the structures of everyday life in the informal economy, as it is crucial in the shaping of the work and labour that is performed — not just in Durban, but in different local contexts.

Water vendor, Sphiwe Ngcobo, aside his self-made cart in Durban, South Africa. Photo: Richard Dobson.

Regarding some of the key findings in this study, Chen notes that fear of theft and confiscation break down the progression and evolution of improving new technologies among informal workers. This leads the research to suggesting further that local policy makers “(…) have a significant impact on informal workers, their livelihoods and their ability to adapt to technological change” (ibid., 421).

This is an important insight as it informs us that new inventions and developments in this particular sector of the economy are being slowed down, rendering the progress made by the informal workers themselves modest. On the other hand, it must also be noted that the informal workers in Lima, Ahmedabad, Durban and elsewhere are finding new ways and solutions, even in restricted and pressured environments. As the aforementioned article states, the use of ICTs (information and communication technologies) are starting to make their mark in the informal sector in a big way, although of course, the number of informal workers with access to and knowledge of this kind of technology is still limited; and certainly not a luxury shared by everyone.

Street vendor, Cornelio Sanchez of Lima (Peru), utislising a plastic tarpaulin that he identified as his most valuable asset. Photo: Themis Castellanos.

In other words, informal workers are at any given time evaluating the risks and benefits against each other, concerning the security and insecurity surrounding the work context as a whole, when it comes to investing and developing their work practice through technology and tools. Therefore, the wider (work) context is — as always — relevant when considering the the worker’s strategies.

These findings underline yet again, the high importance of policy makers and stakeholders to take into account the situation on the ground when planning and implementing civic improvements, new infrastructure, and of course new technology.


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