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How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine | The Nation

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How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine

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Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Requesters can engage in such broad exclusions because the Civil Rights Act does not touch upon these workers. In fact, most of the hard-won worker protections of the twentieth century do not apply to Turkers. Some critics worry that even prohibitions on child labor are being flouted. This is because it is not clear how well some sites enforce requirements that users must be over 18 to perform HITs. Moreover, many crowdworkers are paid in gaming credits, which may be used to intentionally lure children into performing cheap labor. The payment offered for HITs ranges from nothing to a few dollars to payment in virtual currencies, with most HITs falling on the low end of the scale. As a result, it is estimated that the average wage of Turkers is approximately $2 an hour. For access to this unregulated labor pool, Amazon charges a 10 percent commission from the Requesters.

Crowdwork often takes place in the home, performed by people who are not otherwise employed. A few have argued that the low pay may be the result of longstanding gender inequities in society. The great majority of American Turkers are women, and there is some indication that many of them are careworkers, or caring for an elderly relative or young child.

Rachael Jones of Minnesota is an example of a careworker who Turks. She was trained to assist neurosurgeons, but after a neck injury and surgery, she could no longer work in that physically demanding field. In addition, Jones wanted to stay home and take care of her children while her partner worked outside the home. She is now a “very full-time” Turker and, after several years during which she earned three Masters Qualifications and performed 110,000 HITs, she has been able to make approximately $8 per hour. When asked for her thoughts on Turking, she responded, “I really love it.” She admits that “there are some times when it’s really hard, and you’re scrounging and looking and the HITs that pay just aren’t there.” She’d like the pay to be increased, but she also fears that any significant increase could destroy the world of crowdworking. If that were to happen, she is unsure what type of work she could do that would allow her to stay home with her children.

Turkers are categorized as independent contractors, meaning that they are not legally entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance or the various other statutory protections that cover employees. The multi-page participation agreement that all Turkers must consent to before entering the site specifies that the Turker is neither an employee of the Requester nor of Mechanical Turk. Amazon defines its role as being limited to “the capacity of a payment processor in facilitating the transactions between Requesters and Providers” and claims that it is “not responsible for the actions of any Requester or Provider.” Its agreement warns: “As a Requester or Provider, you use the Site at your own risk.”

After being reminded by Amazon of its lack of legal liability, one aggrieved Turker was baffled at how the company could profit from conduct that it hosts while saying it has no liability: “That’s like saying someone is running a slave market on my property, and they’re paying me, but I have no responsibility.”

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Aside from the handful of companies that run crowdworking platforms, no one really knows who makes up the crowd. The most recent study of Turker demographics, in 2010, found that the vast majority of Turkers— 57 percent—were American, with Indians coming in second with 32 percent of the workforce. American Turkers tended to be highly educated, with 63 percent having college degrees, compared with the national average of 25 percent. They were young, with a median age of 30, and 69 percent were female. The crowd labor pool has grown considerably since Amazon created the platform, and the extreme low-wage market seems to rely on competition among the overabundance of workers.

The reasons people engage in Turking are varied. Several years ago, Ipeirotis posted the question as a HIT on the Mechanical Turk site and received responses as varied as “It kills time when I’m bored and restless” to the need for income to get by. One person I spoke with explained that he Turked just enough each day at his office job to pay for a sandwich from Subway. However, there is a sizable group of workers who have come to rely on Mechanical Turk as their primary source of income.

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