Potentials and Challenges of Digitization in Low-Wage Labor Markets

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* Position Paper: Digitization And Work: Potentials and Challenges in Low-Wage Labor Markets. By Saskia Sassen. Columbia University, 2017


"This report examines the question of the future of work and technology through two issues. One

is how digitization can enhance the work life of low-income workers by addressing the specific

needs of these workers at their workspace and in their neighborhoods. Low-wage workers can

gain from the development of digitized apps and tools that address their needs. The high-end

worker is already a full and effective user of these technologies, and in the US, most digital

applications have been geared to the middle classes and high-end workers and households. Very

little has been developed to meet the needs for low-income workers, their families, and their

neighborhoods. This is a bad and sad state of affairs given the needs of these workers and families.

The data indicate that most of these workers and their families have access to digital apps, and

are willing to spend some money on acquiring apps. We also know that access to digital apps is

overwhelmingly through their phones–especially Android phones, rather than through email or

iPhones–which is another constraint that leaves many low-income potential users of digital apps

at a disadvantage. We need more innovations that meet the needs and constraints of low-wage


Against this set of conditions, I focus on how digital innovations can address the needs of low-

wage workers, their families and their neighborhoods. I will discuss recently developed

applications geared towards low-income people and neighborhoods. But I will also examine

existing or planned applications aimed, whether knowingly or de facto, at professionals,

corporations, or scientists that could be adapted for use by low-income workers, families, and


A second major issue I address in this report concerns an emergent complication that increasingly

affects all workers. It derives from the use of semi-automated systems, which have seen

particularly sharp innovations in the world of work. Such systems can generate ambiguity about

responsibility when something goes wrong insofar as the worker still has a role in their

deployment. In the case of factory and delivery workers, the increase in the use of robotic tools

and machines can be devastating if something goes wrong since they probably don't have access

to specialized lawyering if the employer does not pay for it and is in most cases the accused party

anyhow. High-end workers also confront this given the sharp increase in the use of automated

computer transactions of important/high-value operations that generate a similar ambiguity

regarding responsibility for a mistake. But they are likely to have access to that specialized

lawyering. One helpful source for in-depth discussion of this ambiguity about responsibility (the

machine or tool versus the worker using it) can be found in a series of lawsuits: these provide

detailed information about how workers can easily be at the losing end of such lawsuits. But they

also make visible the ambiguities of the work process and the available laws in establishing who is

guilty when something goes wrong."