January 17, 2023
GLRC Faculty Associate Ling Jiang was interviewed by GLRC RAY Student Christina Love for our Researcher Profile series. Dr. Jiang is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information Technology at York University. Find her faculty profile here.
Christina Love: What inspires you to do labour-related work and research? Does this relate to your background as an academic and/or your personal identity and experiences?
Ling Jiang: I started working on labour market research, particularly online, when I was doing one of my first studies that involved collecting data online. Previously, I had been working on another project prior to beginning my online labour market research during the first year of my PhD. Following this, I was in the process of exploring what next steps I would take, professionally speaking, and began to reach out to potential respondents. At that time, a fellow student informed me that there was a project ongoing that was collecting various data from surveys sent to online workers.
Gradually, I developed a greater understanding of online platforms. At the time, the biggest surprise I encountered was the low payment of the workers. I observed that, for some workers, they would earn just 1¢ per task completed. That particular platform was launched in the US, but has grown to include a global market. Most of those workers are from the US and India. There is a marked lack of legal regulation of online labour platforms which enables a lot of worker abuse, including extremely low pay. Employers aren’t even defined as such; on this platform they’re called requesters.
Granted, most online workers do not rely on this as their main source of income, but it is nevertheless concerning that they are paid so poorly. I’m personally surprised that anyone would work for such little money. The rationale behind this kind of low-paying, low-commitment gig work really piqued my interest, and my engagement with these projects during my PhD inspired me to pursue this field of study afterward as well.
CL: What kind of work are you currently doing related to work, labour, and livelihoods? What have you done in the past?
LJ: Currently, I’m trying to investigate similarly irrational work behaviours in the online labour market. My earlier inquiries found that while there is ample flexibility and no entrance barrier, and that working online can help supplement income for people whose employers do not pay them a decent living, the potential for exploitation in such a market is high. There is a lack of formal regulation policies and legal protection for workers from a governmental standpoint. On a more personal level, workers have extremely limited negotiation power and this is a key factor in the perpetuation of low wages and other exploitation. There is promising work being done by some workers to create reviewing platforms for requesters so that those who, for example, arbitrarily refuse labour products and don’t pay are known as such. This is relatively limited in proportion to the vastness of online labour markets, however.
Delving further into this, I seek to rationalize the irrational. My research thus is concerned with the establishment of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to engage in such work online. Due to the granularity of tasks, they typically take 1-5 minutes to complete. Looking at this from a temporal standpoint, this is the sort of thing that can easily be fit into one’s spare time. This begs the question of labour as pastime. Previously unstructured time becomes structured when engaging in work. Due to the fragmented and low-commitment nature of these segmented tasks, even though workers will only earn as low as a cent sometimes, they will still engage in the work.
According to our data collection, normally half of respondents have full-time offline jobs. That means the other half have no dependable income. It is entirely dependent on this form of online gig work that privileges the profits of the requester over the needs of the workers.
CL: How do you position this work in your broader program of research and your particular discipline?
LJ: In my discipline, my research is focused on the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing marketplace. This centers around what we call ‘microtasks,’ those easy and bite-sized tasks that are popular for engaging in during one’s free time. Regarding the gig economy and gig workers, such an economy encompasses a broad range of working tasks and conditions including services like Uber and Airbnb.
CL: What interests you in the field of labour research, and what do you hope to pursue in the future?
LJ: If we look at the broader gig economy, in the future I want to investigate the different types of platforms. Some platforms may require specialized expertise such as Upwork, which recruits workers with design, programming, and other skills to fit the types of jobs they platform for potential employers. Considering the level of skill and relatively high usual compensation for workers with these skills, employers do not have as much of an opportunity to exploit them.
I am also trying to look at the role of algorithms in the online labour market. The workers’ pool of available tasks is determined by algorithms that also govern how a given platform manages workers, evaluates performance, and displays available worker pools to requesters. In function, human resources practices are implemented by these algorithms. My inquiry in this regard is based on how algorithms can potentially empower or exploit workers.
The goal of this research is to drive policy change, or simple creation of policy where none currently exists. It may be that we are able to just emphasize the need for labour policymakers to direct their attention to this and regulate the market. There are serious implications as the online labour market expands. Especially in regard to the replacement or supplement of the traditional regulated workplaces. You see this issue manifest in real time with the replacement of taxi drivers with gig workers on apps such as Uber and Lyft. I do still believe, though, that the offline market generally maintains the edge to derive value which cannot easily be replaced by the online market. In the long run, I am interested in further exploring the dynamics between offline and online markets from the perspectives of both the workers and the requestors/employers.
CL: How did you get started in this field?
LJ: I would say that my PhD research is what started this all. As part of my dissertation, after sharing my experiences with my PhD supervisor, he was quite supportive of pursuing this research further. It started with an explorational study and, in the beginning, I had no idea of the kind of reach this research project could have. The key factor to my success in research is my interest, I would say. I collected data from the platform, then I gradually got to know more about the platform including its dynamics and inner workings. Originally, I had no specific research question, just an interest in the field generally, which has prompted my subsequent inquiries.
CL: Whose research currently interests you? Is there any work being done now that you’d like to engage with?
LJ: Currently I’m only focused on one type of platform, so for me, I am interested in looking at other research studies’ ethics in the online labour market. Although we are doing work around workers on the Amazon platform, I see a lot of knowledge that can be gained from analysis of the data economy. It’s not only the transaction of labour, but of data too. I want to delve deeper into the regulation of data on such platforms. There is this dichotomy in play of profit maximization vs. responsibility that I consider to be of interest.
In the School of Information Technology here at York, there is a professor whose research interests include data science, data economy, and Big Data who I would be interested in collaborating with. His work is more focused on the technology side of these online platforms, and I think we would be able to look into the acquisition of data and making the transaction of data more efficient. Branching off of this, the intersection between data management and online labour management is another avenue to explore.
CL: How do you use, or envision using, creative ways to disseminate your research? Are there any gaps that you’d like to fill?
LJ: Regarding the dissemination of my research, I have a preference for traditional ways such as academic conferences or publication in academic journals. I am also trying to see whether it’s possible to distribute the knowledge through publicly accessible platforms. For example, I may consider releasing my results on the worker-initiated reviewing platforms I mentioned earlier. I think that it is crucial to have this conversation directly with workers, as opposed to confining it to academic circles that the average worker doesn’t have access to. If possible, I would also like to reach out to policymakers and try to effect change. Publicly accessible research that speaks to those most impacted by the research is a key area of engagement that needs to be developed across disciplines.
Dr. Ling Jiang received her PhD in Information Systems (IS) from the College of Business at City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests focus on user behaviors in online labor markets and user-generated content (UGC) platforms. Her research has appeared in leading IS journals including Journal of the Association for Information Systems (JAIS), Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST) and Internet Research, as well as in top-tier communication journal New Media and Society (NMS). She also presented her research at IS conferences such as International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS) and Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS).
Christina Love is an undergraduate student in Indigenous Studies and French at York University. She is a contributor to the GLRC’s interview series entitled Workers’ Stories in the COVID-19 Era. Christina was also a union organizer with Workers United at her local Shoppers Drug Mart from October 2020 – February 2021. A staunch labour and human rights activist, she has been involved in her local community, politics, and the YorkU community since starting university. Formerly the Director of Public Relations for the Palestine Solidarity Collective at York, a candidate in the 2021 federal election, and currently engaged in various community and justice projects, Christina seeks to do what she can when she can.