Call for papers: special issue on Researching Precarious, Virtual and Clandestine Labour: Methodological and Ethical Challenges


Special issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation on ‘Researching Precarious, Virtual and Clandestine Labour: Methodological and Ethical Challenges

The theme

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century it is clear that the standard 20th century normative model of employment does not capture the realities of work for the majority of the world’s population (ILO, 2015). An exponential spread of algorithmically-managed platform labour, just-in-time working, micro-work, teleworking and other trends associated with digitalisation has converged with traditional patterns of work in the informal economy, including clandestine practices, such as the use of child labour, trafficked labour and slave labour, to create a dynamically shifting labour market that cannot be captured by traditional means.

As well as posing new questions for policy makers, this creates major conceptual, methodological and ethical challenges for researchers. Conceptually, it raises questions about how work should be defined. Should the definition of work, for example, be limited to paid labour carried out within a relationship of employment or self-employment, or should it be extended to include unpaid labour? In relation to quantitative research methodology, these developments mean, for example, that official statistics based on administrative data or labour force surveys based on capturing formally-declared employment miss an ever-growing proportion of the workforce. Similarly, qualitative research using tried-and-tested methodologies such as company case studies are inadequate for gaining access to workers who are not known to traditional gatekeepers such as HR managers or recognised trade union representatives.

Scholars researching non-standard work have developed a range of innovative methodologies to get round some of these problems in recent years. For example in quantitative research, innovative analyses of big data (Kassi & Lehdonvirta, 2018; Tubaro, Le Ludec & Casili, 2020)  and experimental population surveys (Huws, Spencer & Coates, 2019; Pesole et al, 2018) have studied prevalence and trends in platform work. However such experimental studies leave a number of questions open, such as how to establish representativeness. In some cases, they may also raise ethical questions related to data security and confidentiality.

Other researchers have drawn from a range of ethnographic and action research traditions to investigate the qualitative aspects of non-standard work, including the use of participant observation and workers’ enquiries (Hoffman, 2018; Somekh, 2005; Katta et al, 2020). Some of these qualitative research approaches overlap with others developed outside the academy, such as accounts by journalists, industrial chaplains or researchers who have gone undercover to report on poor working conditions (Ehrenreich, 2002; Chan, Selden & Ngai, 2020).  These methods also raise ethical questions, such as those relating to obtaining informed consent, guaranteeing the anonymity of informants and avoiding harm to vulnerable research subjects (Dench, Huws & Iphofen, 2004).

The call

This special issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation focuses on these challenges. We particularly welcome contributions that look specifically at the methodological and ethical challenges confronting researchers investigating labour in the context of digitalisation and globalisation based on recent quantitative or qualitative research, though this is not a requirement for submission. Articles could focus on any of the following issues, but are not necessarily limited to them:

  • Research among Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) workers, refugees or asylum seekers;
  • Research among vulnerable groups;
  • Researching clandestine employment or undeclared work;
  • Online research, including online/offline surveys, data mining, alternative sources of data or research using social media;
  • Obtaining informed consent in situations where anonymisation may be difficult or impossible (eg where research subjects are involved in public activities such as strikes or demonstrations);
  • The application of traditional ethnographic methods in modern, digital contexts.

We welcome articles from a range of different disciplinary perspectives including (but not limited to) labour sociology, political economy, economic geography, urban planning, policy analysis, philosophy, research methods and gender studies. Articles may draw on the authors’ original quantitative, qualitative or theoretical research but must demonstrate a clear contribution to knowledge and go beyond mere literature reviews.

The editors

This special issue will be co-edited by:

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation, University of Hertfordshire;

Ron Iphofen, Independent Consultant and Principal Investigator of the EU-funded PRO-RES Project (PROmoting integrity in the use of RESearch results);

Neil H. Spencer, Professor of Applied Statistics and Director of Statistical Services and Consultancy Unit, University of Hertfordshire.

The Journal

Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation is an independent, international, inter-disciplinary peer-reviewed journal, founded in 2006. For more information please see

All submitted articles are subjected to double-blind peer review.

Deadline and Guidelines

The deadline for submissions is October 1st, 2021.

The article should be no longer than 6,000 words (excluding footnotes and bibliography).

Articles should be submitted in two forms: an anonymised version in which all references to the authors’ institution and publications are omitted; and a full version including the authors’ titles and institutional affiliations.

Articles should be sent to the editor:


Chan, J., M. Selden & P. Ngai (2020) Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Lives of China’s Workers, London, Pluto Press

Dench, S., U. Huws & R. Iphofen (2004) An EU Code of Ethics for Socio-economic Research, Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies.

Ehrenreich, B. (2002) Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Granta

Hoffman, M. (2018) Militant Acts: The Role of Investigations in Radical Political Struggle, New York: SUNY Press.

Huws, U., N. Spencer & M. Coates (2019) The Platformisation of Work in Europe: Results from Research in 13 European Countries, Brussels: Foundation for European Progressive Studies.

ILO (2015) World Employment Social Outlook: The Changing Nature of Jobs, Geneva: International Labour Organization.

Kässi, O & V Lehdonvirta (2018)- ‘Online labour index: Measuring the online gig economy for policy and research’, Technological forecasting and social change, 137:241-248

Katta, S., Howson, K., and Graham, M. (2020). ‘The Fairwork Foundation: Action Research on the Gig Economy’. Global Dialogue. 10(1). 44-46.

Pesole, A., C. Urzì-Brancati, E. Fernández-Macías & I. González-Vázquez (2018) Platform Workers in Europe: Evidence from the COLLEEM Survey, Report EUR 29275 EN, Publications Office of the European Union.

Somekh, B. (2005) Action Research: a Methodology for Change and Development, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Tubaro, P., C. Le Ludec &A. Casilli (2020) ‘Counting “micro-workers”: Societal and methodological challenges around new forms of labour”, Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation, 14 (1)