Online labour markets and the persistence of personal networks: Evidence from workers in Southeast Asia

Changes to the nature of work and employment relations in the past few decades have in large part been driven by value chain restructuring, or the outsourcing and offshoring of work. The material basis for these changes is in many cases provided by digital information and communication technologies (ICTs). We examine an extreme example of ICT-enabled service value chain restructuring: online labour markets, or sites that bring together buyers and sellers of digitally mediated service work around the world. We ask in what ways the Internet and online labour markets specifically are reconfiguring service trade value chains, and with what effects on the nature of work. We report initial results from a 3-month period of fieldwork among online workers in locations in Southeast Asia, one of the prime destinations of offshored service work. Results are presented in the form of a typology of five patterns: bridging, disintermediation, reintermediation, local lengthening, and horizontal collaboration. As expected in the policy discourse, online labour markets function as bridges that allow workers in low-income countries to obtain work from clients in high-income countries. But contrary to expectations, they also give rise to new intermediaries and hierarchies, suggesting that there are non-technological limits to marketization and that personal networks continue to matter, even in digital work mediated through digital marketplaces.

Lehdonvirta, V., Hjorth, I., Graham, M. and Barnard, H. (2015), 'Online labour markets and the persistence of personal networks: Evidence from workers in Southeast Asia', in Proceedings of the American Sociological Association Conference, August 2015, Chicago.


  • Research publication
  • Asia
  • Yes
  • professional services
  • worker demographics, income, motivation for platform work, skills and employability
  • English
  • American Sociological Association Conference (Publisher)
  • 2015
  • Open access
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