Crowdworkers form their own digital networks


Michael Pooler

They are the invisible labourers whose toil in the digital economy powers many rising technology companies.

Crowdworkers pick up the slack where artificial intelligence meets its limits. They do small online data tasks, on an outsourced basis and usually from home, that involve basic computer skills, from labelling images and transcription to identifying porno­graphy, which machines and algorithms alone cannot manage. The work is often repetitive and simple but requires human judgment and insight.

“For a lot of entrepreneurs working on lean start-up budgets, it’s not viable to take somebody on to do this work,” says Lilly Irani, a computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who sees the phenomenon as part of the broader socio-economic reconfiguration ushered in by on-demand services such as Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit.

“[Crowdwork is] making large segments of labour infinitely flexible through computers and apps for a certain class of people – innovators and entrepreneurs,” says Ms Irani.

There are no exact figures but active crowdworkers are believed to number hundreds of thousands globally, with most concentrated in the US and India.

Champions of this emerging sector say the work is flexible and provides a path out of poverty for people in developing nations, as well as a financial lifeline in countries with weak social safety nets. Its critics say that the often minimal pay – sometimes as low as 50 cents an hour – and absence of employment rights, such as guaranteed work, sick pay and holidays, sits uneasily with the world-changing aspirations of the tech entrepreneurs and engineers who farm out the mouse-clicking and keyboard-tapping assignments.

“It’s not like a nine to five [job], where the same work is available to you,” says 27-year-old Ozlem Demirci, who lives in the US. “I call $20 [a] day a fantastic day. Some days I earn just a couple of dollars.”

This emerging but disparate virtual workforce is increasingly trying to tip the scales back in its favour.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, dubbed MTurk, is the best known and biggest crowdwork marketplace with a pool of 500,000 workers worldwide, according to the online retailer. Launched in 2005, it takes its name from an 18th century autonomous chess-playing machine that toured Europe before it was exposed as having a living chess master operating it from inside.

While “requesters”, who post tasks with set prices, are free to withhold payment without explanation if dissatisfied, a “Turker” who receives several bad ratings on the quality of their work is barred from viewing swaths of tasks. They have no grievance mechanism: Amazon, which receives a commission on each paid “human intelligence task”, or HIT, does not intervene in disputes. Studies put the median hourly MTurk wage at between $1.38 and $5. “How much a worker makes really depends on what tasks [they choose], how good their work is and if they are a casual or a full-time worker,” says Amazon.

Although they are geographically dispersed, crowdworkers are establishing digital versions of mutual aid and workplace solidarity. There are internet forums where Turkers, as they call themselves, share tips, experiences of particular requesters, boast about their task tallies and air anxieties about work drying up or paying too little.

TurkOpticon, a web browser plug-in developed by Ms Irani and a colleague with input from Turkers, enables workers to rate requesters on communication, generosity, fairness and promptness of payment. Some other websites provide coding to help users to operate the Amazon system more efficiently.

“Only when you harness all the tools available can you make a living wage, or [even] a good living,” says Kristy Milland, a thirtysomething mother and student in Ontario, Canada. Ms Milland says she made “double the poverty line” by Turking full-time, which was enough to support her family and pay medical bills for two years after her husband lost his job. Even so, obtaining work involves unpaid admin: “We have to look for HITs, then check out the requester on TurkOpticon, track who we have worked for and set up alerts in case they post more good work.”

However, crowdsourcing companies’ ability to get round statutory minimum wages is being challenged in the US. A California court has been asked to approve a financial settlement between San Francisco-based CrowdFlower and two of its former workers, who claimed breach of federal minimum wage laws. Ellen Doyle, a lawyer for one of the claimants, says that although the case will not set a precedent, such actions could in her view eventually lead to crowdworkers being reclassified as employees instead of their present status as independent contractors. “It isn’t a big leap to say even if you work online from your house or the coffee shop you are still performing work which is essentially highly controlled by the company.” CrowdFlower did not respond to requests for comment.

There are signs that potential litigation is prompting some companies to re­think their strategy on digital outsourcing. Some crowdwork companies are increasingly targeting video gamers or younger people with in-game rewards or Facebook credits instead of cash.

Other businesses are looking overseas. CloudFactory, which recently announced a $3m fundraising, engages workers in Kenya and Nepal. The company aims to improve its service by treating its 3,000-odd contractors better than its competitors.

Instead of an open marketplace, it uses handpicked trained and supervised workers who spend minimal time looking for tasks, says chief executive Mark Sears. “[Our workers] are usually earning $1-$3 an hour, which ironically is more than what many people are getting paid in the US [for similar work]”.

Not all crowdworkers are disempowered. One, who prefers not to be named, says he earns up to $200 on a good day and adds that some people do not pay tax on their earnings – a requirement in most jurisdictions.

While the Turker forums have pressed for and won improvements such as convincing requesters to communicate better or redesign aptitude tests and work-distribution algorithms, there is scepticism that more collective forms of self-organising can prevail. “A union would never work on any crowdsource platform,” writes one forum user. “If the workers staged a strike, thousands of non-union workers would quickly fill the void.”

Further reading: Payment by the hour, not the task

As digital crowdwork faces a backlash over low pay and absence of protection for workers, some entrepreneurs sense an opportunity in adopting socially conscious models.

“When people are badly paid and it’s relatively transactional, they show up, do the work and disappear. There’s no incentive to do a good job,” says Anand Kulkarni, chief executive of MobileWorks, whose LeadGenius platform launched in 2010 and has “several hundred” full-time workers in 50 countries. MobileWorks recently raised $6m on top of $2.2m in early-stage funding.

The company targets disadvantaged and marginalised groups, from military veterans to refugees. Unlike most other crowdwork companies, it pays hourly. The idea is to root out poor-quality work by removing the incentive to complete assignments hastily.

A US-based crowdworker for MobileWorks can expect up to 40 hours work a week, says Mr Kulkarni. “Pay is almost always above the minimum wage in the countries we are working in,” he adds. The lower-skilled tasks are assigned to developing countries.

However, its workers are freelancers, not employees, and therefore enjoy no holiday or sick pay, or security of work.