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Platform workers in global production networks


Leeds University Business School

Prof Mark Stuart , Dr Kate Hardy , Dr Simon Joyce Tuesday, June 01, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The 'platform economy', which enables individuals to sell their labour via mediated digital platforms, has grown rapidly in recent years and analysing its social relevance has become an expanding field of research. In general, however, these workers have been understood in isolation, with research focusing largely on experiences with particular platforms rather than with the broader networks of global production within which they may be implicated.

This ESRC WRDTP Associated Studentship is located in the ESRC Digital Futures at Work Research centre (Digit). A key focus of Dig.IT will be the UN sustainable development goal (SDG) of decent work, identified as an important global challenge. In this vein, this doctoral research will examine the impact of the role of digital technologies in global production networks in providing good jobs and greater earning power for all. This project connects with 'Research Theme 1: The Impact of Digitalisation on Work and Employment', including mapping the impact of digital technologies at work, but will extend this area of interest in a number of ways. First, the student will develop primary empirical data on this area, second, they will go beyond the regional scale in an effort to understand the relationships between specifically located platform workers and global systems of production.

Drawing on research in industrial relations, human resource management, global political economy and the sociology of work and employment, it will explore the extent to which platform workers are involved in global production networks. The aim will be to develop understandings of these workers' position in GPNs and patterns of outsourcing; workers' experiences and employment relations; and the degree to which existing governance mechanisms are able to regulate such employment.

A wealth of recent research has addressed questions about platform workers, exploring who undertakes work on platforms and what their experiences are and an emerging set of scholarship examines their capacity for collective organisation. Much of this has been focused on key sectors such as taxi driving, food delivery or on particular platforms. Instead, this scholarship takes a focus on key global industries which have been forerunners in producing global supply chains in advance of the emergence of platforms, such as manufacture and agriculture.

A key aim of this ESRC WRDTP Studentship is to provide the successful applicant with high quality research training and professional development opportunities. The studentship will be based in the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit) at the University of Leeds. Digit was launched in January 2020, funded by a £6.5 million award from the ESRC, and is co-directed from the University of Leeds (Professor Mark Stuart) and the University of Sussex (Professor Jackie O’Reilly), in partnership with the Universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, Manchester and Monash. Digit offers an outstanding support structure for PGR research, with an extensive network of established academics in the UK and internationally and a well-developed programme of early career training and mentoring. The successful applicant will benefit from the support structures and wider research activities of Digit, as well as the outstanding programme of training offered by the University of Leeds. They will also receive close support, mentoring and guidance from the academic supervisors, Professor Mark Stuart, Dr Kate Hardy and Dr Simon Joyce.

The project will sit within the core research programme of Digit, specifically Theme 1, The Impact of digitialisation on work and employment. A key aim of this theme is to conceptualise Digital Futures at work historically and internationally and to map regional and international trends of digital technologies at work. Digital technologies operate across national, regional and international borders via global production networks, but we still know very little about the ways in which these technologies shape work and production which operate across these boundaries and the role that outsourced platform workers play in these networks.

By adopting a global production network (GPN) approach, the student will develop empirically grounded theoretical understandings of the role of this work in intervening and potentially disrupting existing production networks, global value chains and patterns of outsourcing. The student will examine the impact of this on both working conditions and possibilities for regulation and governance within such chains, identifying the substantive area of examination through desk-based research and literature reviews.

Subcontracting from formal supply chains has long been recognised as a key feature of global production networks. Labour contracting is viewed a logical extension of global outsourcing, as firms seek to offset risk and enhance flexibility. More recent research has focused on the ways in which informal workers may also be implicated in these networks. Little is known or understood, however, about the role of platforms as labour intermediaries and platform workers in current forms of subcontracting in GPNs. In this context, this doctoral scholarship will allow for further examination of the degree to which platforms are acting as new labour intermediaries in GPNs; the locations they occupy and the implications for workers.

Methodologically, the studentship will enable an analysis of the role of platforms as intermediaries across global space. This will involve extensive review of secondary sources, as well as further collection of data related to the topic. The aim will be to identify a case study or case studies to be selected by the student in collaboration with the supervisory team. This will potentially involve interviews with both lead firms, as well as workers on relevant platforms. Other methods may be adopted through the development of the research, in dialogue between the student and supervisors. The expectation is that the student will have a good social science research background, with an understanding of contemporary employment relations and the global political economy of work.

Contact details

For further information please contact the LUBS Graduate School Office or visit the full studentship posting on the Leeds University Business School website.

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