The ASEAN Digital Gig Economy: Bridging the Digital Divide through Human Rights

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2022, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to innovation and investment, digital economy, and regional mobility.

The advent of the digital-enabled gig economy over the past decade has provided opportunities for regional governments to create a cost-effective, independent, and flexible labour force. However, the ongoing replacement of traditional forms of work by the gig economy, combined with its numerous regulatory issues, has created significant socio-economic obstacles for both Australia and ASEAN members in both upholding basic human rights and realizing the full benefits of digital transformation. 

The “digital divide” has traditionally described challenges in the accessibility, availability, and acceptability of information and communications technologies (ICTs) across communities and geographic areas – including telecommunications infrastructure, smartphones, and internet access. Across ASEAN, 61% of students do not receive any digital literacy education in schools. In particular, less than 35% of the population in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar  use the internet. Similarly, 2.8 million people remain highly excluded from internet access across Australia.

This inequality among ASEAN is reinforced by a Digital Quality of Life Survey which ranked Singapore as 12th, followed by Malaysia at 41st, Vietnam at 54th, Thailand at 63rd, Philippines at 66th, and Indonesia at 71st. Consequently, a lack of access to adequate ICT resources considerably disadvantages the degree of digital literacy across a population with implications for future employment options, access to consumer goods and services, and engaging with the wider world. To achieve a more holistic understanding and promote effective policymaking, governments must reconceptualize the digital divide to instead refer to socioeconomic challenges which arise in the context of ICT use – including inequality, discrimination, and social justice.

Over the past decade, the proliferation of both smartphones and internet access internationally has played a key role in the rise of the gig economy. This refers to a form of employment where individuals engage in irregular work providing services to consumers for a fee using digital platforms or marketplaces. This includes  famous companies such as Uber, Grab, Gojek, and DoorDash where workers are tasked with ferrying customers between locations or delivering food orders, among others. Such companies hire independent contractors and freelance workers instead of full-time employees, providing flexibility and freedom for companies and individuals. 

Between 2015 to 2019 the global gig economy grew nine-fold to $6.3 billion. The gig economy has brought sizable economic benefits to developing ASEAN nations – contributing $7 billion to Indonesia’s economy alone and driving projections that the region’s digital companies will grow from $340 billion to $1 trillion between 2021-25.

Despite the promises of easy money, individuals working within the gig economy often find themselves victim to misleading, immoral, exploitative, or illicit labour practices from the hiring companies. From a personal perspective, many gig workers find it difficult to remain financially viable without a predictable salary, face an uncertain career path, and experience difficulties in coping with the heightened emotional turbulence of independent work.

With  40% of Southeast Asia’s population under 30 years of age, the economic participation of the region’s youth will have significant implications on the changing nature of work in the region. In 2019, there were approximately 150 million self-employed individuals across Southeast Asia, of which 50% were underbanked and under protected. As of July 2022, there were approximately four million workers who have flexible schedules throughout the region – involved in food delivery, e-commerce, logistics, and transportation services.

Realities of the gig economy

In reviewing the alleged benefits of the gig economy – the ease of access offered by smartphones and applications, coupled with the recent increased demand for online delivery services, has empowered young and informal workers with expanded and creative opportunities to earn a living. Many platform/tech companies provide various benefits – including flexible work options, access to education and training programs, access to a safer working environment, and personal accident insurance.  

However, the reality of gig work is plagued with controversy. Gig workers have been involved in numerous  public demonstrations and complaints over inadequate pay and conditions, and demands for decent working standards. Closer examination highlights how many gig workers in Malaysia work up to 14 hour shifts for an average of USD$27 per day delivering food. Drivers and delivery workers in Indonesia are paid less than half the national minimum wage. The death of five food delivery drivers within the region’s most advanced economy of Singapore between 2021-22 further underscores the hazardous nature of the work. 

This reality is compounded by the lowering of wages, inadequate opportunities for formal jobs, and rising costs of inflation on basic necessities experienced across the region. Over 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic erased over 9.3 million jobs, and pushed 4.7 million people across Southeast Asia into poverty. This circumstance has contributed to the inevitable deterioration of opportunities across the gig economy, with the massive reserve army of labour providing significant leverage for platform companies in terms of reducing pay and incentives.

Human Rights Challenges

ASEAN states have been described as “well-placed” to advance human rights, freedoms, and a strong global economy. The capacity of Southeast Asian countries to regulate the gig economy, negotiate with tech/platform companies, and improve employment standards is integral toward achieving social stability, economic prosperity, and inclusive growth. However, achieving this requires overcoming several challenges.

Firstly, ASEAN nations must overcome differences of opinion and institutional hurdles surrounding human rights, to meet their international obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights. In addressing the risks of the gig economy, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR) may benefit by referencing and upholding workers rights to “decent and favourable conditions of work” under Article 27(1) of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. 

Following the recent 4th ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue however, the ongoing adherence of the AICHR with the consensus principle, and lack of clear standards for ASEAN members to respect human rights, continues to hamper efforts to improve the region’s human rights situation. 

Second, ASEAN nations must work with platform/tech companies to improve industry compliance with human rights values and principles. This requires overcoming the ‘silo mentality’ across each of the ASEAN community pillars, and achieving uniformity across the position of member states on business and human rights, through the successful internalisation and implementation of human rights at the domestic level.

Third, ASEAN nations must encourage dialogue and interject concerns surrounding the gig economy and big tech regulation across their strategic documents on digital connectivity – including the ASEAN Digital Framework, 2019 ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, Asian Community Vision 2025, and most recently ASEAN Digital Master Plan 2025.

Finally, ASEAN nations must resolve to explore and regulate the algorithmic processes used by platform/tech companies. Where gig economy companies employ algorithms to exert indirect control upon the requirements of their workers, and manage customer expectations, the issue of algorithmic bias comes to mind. Policymakers must thus work to redefine inclusive development through the introduction of best practice principles for the digital gig economy – centring around agency, care, equity, inclusion, and reliability. 

In summary, in bridging the digital divide across Southeast Asia’s digital gig economy, ASEAN members and regional stakeholders will benefit from the integration of a human rights-based approach toward regulating the questionable activities and labour practices of platform/tech companies. This will assist in safeguarding workers’ rights; ensure a basic level of existence for citizens; and the development of a support and stable and prosperous region. 

This article was written by Jonathan Lim, edited by the Diplomacy Team, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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