How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine
According to the limited Turker demographics available, Stephanie Costello’s story is all too common. Costello lives in a trailer at the edge of a desert town in the Southwest. She is 50 and has an associate’s degree in nursing, but she has been unable to find suitable work as a nurse. In 2007, Costello was working at a boring office job and, in slow periods, earning extra money by doing online surveys on Mechanical Turk. When she lost her job at the start of the 2008 recession, she took to Turking full time, often more. What started as a source of extra cash suddenly turned into her main source of income. According to the 2010 study, Costello’s situation may be representative of approximately one in eight Turkers in America, or one in five worldwide.
Costello describes full-time Turking as “feast or famine,” but years of Turking have diminished her view of the feast. In February 2013, she worked approximately sixty hours a week searching for and performing HITs and made approximately $150 per week—and that was the feast. The next month, she was unable to find as many “good-paying” HITs and earned only about $50 per week. She describes how she often stays up all night with the Mechanical Turk screen open, because when people post a good batch of HITs, they go quickly.
“Good-paying” has become a relative term. Costello refuses to work for 60 cents or even $1.20 an hour because those low amounts are “more undignified than begging.” However, at $2 per hour she starts to equivocate, and she admits that she often works for that wage. Even those who describe making decent money usually talk about earning $6 per hour, which is still below the federal minimum wage.
Costello’s story of being a full-time Turker who is barely holding on is all too familiar in the world of crowdworkers. However, Costello believes that Turking may one day change for the better, especially with worker organization. Others, like Laura Henderson (a pseudonym to protect her privacy), see no way out. Until 2004, Henderson had a career as a technical trainer in the Pacific Northwest. When that work dried up, she got her bachelor’s degree and joined Teach for America, which assigned her to teach math at a school in New York’s South Bronx. Henderson was assigned to the school midway through the year to replace a beloved teacher and had problems right away. She lost her job and found herself alone in a new city, in debt from the TFA experience and in search of yet another career.
She received unemployment compensation for a period, but for an over-50 worker in a recession, consistent work was hard to find. So Henderson started Turking. “It sounded very interesting when I heard about it—wow, crowdwork. I’ve always been into collaboration and working together and the parts being greater than the whole,” she says. But her enthusiasm quickly waned. “When I started doing it, I realized that the pay is crap. I’m lucky to get $2 per hour.”
When I first interviewed her, Henderson was renting a small room in the Bronx and described herself as “poor and despondent.” In addition to her earnings as a crowdworker, she received $200 a month in food stamps and $180 a month in welfare. She was too poor to maintain a bank account, so she had to spend her Mechanical Turk earnings on Amazon, which she called “the company store.” She was not unaware of the cruel irony that her supplies were likely handled by an exploited worker in an Amazon warehouse somewhere.
On the day I spoke with Henderson, she told me she was “irate” and unhappy because she had just been rejected for a $5 HIT (unfairly, she felt), and warned that she might not be coherent as a result. Henderson recognized that $5 may not seem like a lot of money, but she added that living hand to mouth in the anonymity of Mechanical Turk had made her “feral.”
Henderson described being scammed as a relatively common occurrence. Requesters get to keep the work product whether they officially “accept” or “reject” the work. As a result, many Turkers have complained of being denied payment through no fault of their own.
Henderson went further than most. She said that at first, she tried to get other Turkers worked up about being scammed but found that her indignation did not appear to be shared. “In our day and age, it’s bread and circuses,” she said. “People don’t get angry anymore. I’m angry, but I can’t get other people to get angry.”
Henderson then filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Office of the New York Attorney General and anyone else she thought might have jurisdiction over the matter. However, because it is often impossible to know the identity of a given Requester, Henderson also went after Amazon.
In a long response from Amazon’s attorneys, the company explained that it has no legal responsibility for Henderson not being paid the minimum wage, or even not being paid at all for a completed task. The letter describes Amazon’s role as merely creating a marketplace and allowing Requesters and Turkers to contract freely. The letter states that Amazon does not resolve disputes between the parties and provides no warranties; it also maintains that the company is released from all liabilities when each party checks the box assenting to the participation agreement. The New York Attorney General’s Office forwarded the letter to Henderson and said there was nothing it could do at the present time.
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