Digital labour platforms in Pakistan: institutional voids and solidarity networks

Fareesa Malik, Richard Heeks, Silvia Masiero, Brian Nicholson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: While digital labour platforms are being increasingly studied across the Global South, the existing literature does not conceptualise the theoretical link between such platforms and socio-economic development. This paper theorises such a link drawing on the notion of institutional voids defined, as in Khanna and Palepu (2010), as “the absence of intermediaries to efficiently connect buyers and sellers” in an economy. We frame digital labour platforms as means to fill institutional voids, seeking to create “development” in the form of earning opportunities in contexts of deprivation. Design/methodology/approach: We draw on an interpretive case study of an online work training project in a deprived region of Pakistan, where members of marginalised communities were trained to become freelancers for global digital labour platforms. We use the notion of market-enabling institutions aimed at filling institutional voids as a lens to study the project's declared goals, examining the extent to which these were met in practice for the workers who participated in the training. Findings: Our analysis reveals three types of market-enabling institutions–credibility enhancers, aggregators and distributors, and transaction facilitators–through which digital labour platforms seek to fill institutional voids. However, workers' narratives reveal that institutional voids are only partially filled by these platforms, and their perpetuation results in diverse forms of power asymmetries leveraged by clients and owners of the platforms. We also observe the formation of solidarity networks among workers, networks that are intra-familial and societal rather than characterised by formal unionisation. Originality/value: The paper offers a novel perspective to theorise the link between digital labour and socio-economic development. Applying such a perspective in a Global South context, it also finds the limits of the digital platforms' institutional void-filling potential, highlighting the emergence of power asymmetries and the emerging formation of worker solidarity networks.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInformation Technology and People
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jan 2021


  • Case study
  • Developing countries
  • Interpretivist research
  • Interview
  • Social inclusion
  • Societal

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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