Virtual Sweatshops Paint A Bleak Picture Of The Future Of Work
Crowd labor platforms like Mechanical Turk offer a bleak glimpse of what could come for a growing digital underclass
James Jordan rolled out of bed just before 5 a.m. on a recent Saturday and went straight to work. A job was available as soon as he logged into the Mechanical Turk website from his computer at home, a small duplex he shares with his grandmother in Bakersfield, California.
Images of t-shirts and polo shirts flashed on Jordan’s monitor, and he was asked to rate their similarity. He would earn a penny each time he completed the tiny task. The rest of the morning was a blur as Jordan raced to get more than 3,000 of them done. He skipped taking a shower and stopped only for the occasional cigarette outside — each puff a reminder that he didn’t earn money during breaks. Between batches of photos, Jordan also managed to pick up a handful of short academic surveys offered through the site, which farms out an array of digital piecework day and night to workers around the world.
For each completed survey Jordan earned 50 cents a pop.
“There are days when you can’t look away from the screen,” said Jordan, 26, who has earned a living for the last year-and-a-half tagging photos, participating in studies, or tackling whatever day labor Mechanical Turk has to offer. “Days like that make you really question why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
By the time he wrapped up that afternoon he had made just over $60. His earnings as a virtual laborer that month, including some 12-hour days, would come in at $1,174.24. “I’ve been poor my whole life,” said Jordan. “So $1,200 is pretty good.”
Jordan is among thousands of low-paid workers toiling behind isolated screens to make the internet and an array of ephemeral factories hum.
The rapid growth of Silicon Valley companies such as Uber, TaskRabbit, and Airbnb have cast a spotlight on parts of the burgeoning gig economy. But ventures like Mechanical Turk — and the men and women who power them from bedrooms, couches, and coffee shops — remain less known and largely invisible. Tackling millions of digital micro tasks daily, these crowd labor platforms comprise a web of virtual assembly lines that can be as precarious and low-paying as their predecessors from the industrial era. Moreover, they can offer a startling glimpse into the bleak future of low-wage, low-skilled work.
“Dystopian would be one accurate way of describing it,” Moshe Marvit, a labor lawyer and scholar who has written extensively about crowd labor, told Vocativ. “The worst possible world for workers might be another.”
Proponents of crowd labor offer a markedly different vision for this digital workforce, one that’s as disruptive as it is democratic. told the Nation in 2014.he crowdsourcing industry [is] bringing opportunities to people who never would have had them before, and we operate in a truly egalitarian fashion, where anyone who wants to can do microtasks, no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them,” Lukas Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, a San Francisco-based platform,
Sites like Crowdflower, Mechanical Turk, Clickworker, UpWork, and its dozens of competitors comprise a large — and growing — market for small, digital tasks outsourced around the globe. The World Bank estimates that the online outsourcing industry generated close to $2 billion in revenue in 2013, a figure that could increase to $25 billion by the end of the decade. Crowdwork companies boast about workforces that number in the hundreds of thousands.
Among platforms used to facilitate this market, Mechanical Turk is one of the largest in the U.S. Launched by Amazon in 2005, it now claims to have more than half a million “crowdworkers” powering its digital machine, though an exact number of active users is not available. Their jobs are ones that even the most sophisticated computers, algorithms, or other forms of artificial intelligence can’t perform, but which constitute the very nuts and bolts of the internet that most take for granted. Amorphous shop floors of crowdworkers churn out online product reviews and spam. They tag photos and websites, verify URLs, and fine tune search engine optimization. Some have also probably written the titles to your favorite porn videos online.
Companies or clients, known on Mechanical Turk as “requesters,” farm out these gigs, which are sometimes broken down into hundreds of thousands of microtasks. Workers, who refer to themselves as “Turkers,” accept these jobs — eerily referred to as HITs, or Human Intelligence Tasks — that pay anywhere from a penny to several dollars each. For its role, Amazon takes a commission of anywhere between 20 percent and 40 percent.
The sweeping range of microtasks made available on Mechanical Turk is matched by a labor force that’s equally motley. On any given day, the site can draw a mishmash of recent college grads and ex-cons, retirees and former school teachers, said Kristy Milland, a moderator for Turker Nation, one of the many online forums that exist for these workers. There are stay-at-home moms looking to pick up a little extra cash and full-time Turkers hustling to pay their bills. For the disabled and the socially anxious, it can be a lifeline.
“Compared to any other work place it’s insane,” Milland said of the diversity among workers on Mechanical Turk.
But Turking ain’t always easy.
Like most who earn a paycheck in the gig economy, Turkers are categorized as independent contractors, neither employees of Mechanical Turk nor the requesters using the site. That means they are not legally entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, or a host of other protections that cover employees. The HITs can be mind-numbingly monotonous and their availability erratic, leaving some reluctant to ever stray too far from their computers. Requesters have also been known to refuse to pay for work completed —an experience common among Turkers, though one for which they have no recourse.
What’s also drawn ongoing scrutiny is the pay. Two recent independent surveys found that around half of Turkers in the U.S. earned fewer than $5 an hour, far less than the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage. Only eight percent of participants from a Pew study published last year said they made more than $8 an hour. Yet almost a quarter of them said they relied on Mechanical Turk for most or all of their income.
“Amazon’s Mechanical Turk has become a kind of last ditch for many,” said Milland, who spent nearly a decade working full-time on the site and is now an advocate for crowd workers. “It’s creating a kind of digital underclass.”
To be clear, not all Turkers find themselves toiling as virtual day laborers for low wages. Some, in fact, have carved out a comfortable living and lifestyle around the platform. Dane, who spoke with Vocativ on the condition we not publish his last name, began Turking in 2013 after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He now says he makes more than $30,000 a year from the site and has time to run a photography business on the side. “This life feels more fulfilling for me,” said Dane, a former field service engineer. “It’s worth an awful lot.”
For Jordan, Turking might not guarantee a minimum wage for the work he puts in. But it also means no long commutes, burning money on gas, or running late. He also has a flexible schedule and no bosses telling him what he can and can’t do. “That’s a pretty nice feeling,” he said.
Such perks or perceived conveniences should not have to come at the cost of substandard pay or basic rights as a worker, said Miriam Cherry, a professor at the Saint Louis School of Law whose research focuses on labor and employment in the virtual world. “There’s plenty of computer workers in an office who get paid minimum wage. Why would that be any different if you work at home?” said Cherry, who last year co-edited the book, “Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World.”
More Turkers are beginning to recognize a need to work together in order to exert more say over their jobs. They’ve devised rating systems for vetting requesters and created various online forums where they can trade tips, alert each other to lucrative gigs, and talk about life outside of Turking. Hundreds even organized a letter writing campaign to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with the message that they were human beings, not algorithms.
These worker-driven efforts have yielded some success. Scamming requesters are now easier to identify. The letter-writing campaign earned international headlines, providing a brief window of visibility for a largely anonymous workforce. But without legal protections for workers, observers like Cherry believe many will remain vulnerable to ever-greater exploitation. “If we don’t do something about it at some point that’s what we’re going to get,” she said. “It’s a race to the bottom.”
Meanwhile, the low cost and convenience of crowd labor continues to attract interest among a growing number of fields. Researchers at universities and non-profits have increasingly turned to Mechanical Turk to farm subjects for their studies — a decision that’s yielded mixed results. In the last few years, Turkers have even been used at times to diagnose a host of medical cases and work as amateur pathologists to analyze potential cancer cells. For some, such developments don’t bode well for the future of work.
“There’s never been as deregulated a labor market as the one that exists online,” said Marvit, the labor scholar. “More professional work is going to be eaten up by it.”
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