Unpaid labour and territorial extraction in digital value networks

Kelle Howson, Hannah Johnston, Matthew Cole, Fabian Ferrari, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Mark Graham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Production in knowledge and data-intensive industries is powered by work that can, in theory, be done from anywhere, via cloudwork platforms. Cloudwork platforms govern data value chains in distinct ways to concentrate power and extract value at the global scale. We argue that unpaid labour is a systemic mechanism of accumulation in these digital value networks. In this paper we demonstrate how it is tied to platform business models and facilitated by elements of platform governance including monopsony power, a high degree of spatial flexibility in sourcing labour, regulatory unaccountability and digital enclosure. We draw on a survey of 699 workers on 14 platforms in 74 countries to show that unpaid labour is an engine of South–North value extraction, and workers in the global South perform more unpaid labour than counterparts in the global North. Our findings have important ramifications our understanding of the changing international division of labour and platform capitalism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)732-754
Number of pages23
JournalGlobal Networks
Issue number4
Early online date2022
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2023


  • Global commodity
  • Global production networks
  • Governance
  • Ict
  • Survey
  • Value chains


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