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


How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine

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

Lilly Irani takes issue with Amazon’s description of its role in the marketplace. She is one of the developers, along with Six Silberman, of Turkopticon, an Internet browser plug-in and forum that allows Turkers to rate Requesters and exchange important information about them in order to “REPORT and AVOID shady employers.” Irani argues that one of the fundamental problems with Mechanical Turk and other crowdworking sites is that they are not neutral market-places, as the sites claim, but are built on an inherently exploitative model that privileges employers.

One example is the way the Turker has no leverage in the employment relationship—an imbalance that is particularly pronounced in the set-up that allows a Requester either to “accept” or “reject” a Turker's work. These terms belong in quotation marks because, as mentioned earlier, the Requester sees and retains the work product no matter which choice it makes. If the Requester “accepts” the work, then it gets to keep the work product and pays the Turker. If the Requester “rejects” the work, then it gets to keep the work product without paying the Turker. The Requester does not have to provide a reason for the rejection, and there is nothing a Turker can do to challenge the decision other than to inquire and hope for a response.

By “rejecting” work, the Requester not only deprives the Turker of payment, but also affects the Turker’s online reputation. Turkers are ostensibly anonymous, identified only by a long string of numbers and letters, so all they have is their Mechanical Turk reputation. Costello describes how, in the beginning, she did thousands of HITs of any type simply to build her approval rate, only to realize how easily it could be knocked back down. “If you have a 99.8 percent approval rating and then you work for some jack-wagon who rejects 500 of your HITs, you’re toast,” she says. “Because for every rejection, you have to get 100 HITs that are approved to get your rating back up. Do you know how long that takes? It can take months; it can take years.”

Out of this grind, online forums and worker sites such as Turkopticon, TurkerNation, mturkforum, CloudMeBaby and Reddit have become the primary locations for the crowdworkforce to talk about their working conditions. However, the anonymity of Turking combined with the sharp edge of the Internet have often made these forums as counterproductive to organizing as they are productive in navigating the world of crowdwork.

TurkerNation is one of the oldest forums, and many Turkers have complained about being arbitrarily banned from the site at the whim of the moderator, Spamgirl. (Full disclosure: in researching this article, I was banned from the site shortly after joining.) Spamgirl has described herself as “the Hoffa of the Turkers! Trying to help the people.” She allowed a thread about Turkopticon, then in its early stages, to be hosted on the site before taking it down for unknown reasons. Rachael Jones describes being banned for getting into a Twitter tangle with a TurkerNation moderator.

Other sites like mturkforum and Turkopticon are more friendly, but some have complained that there is little support from forum communities in trying to better conditions or organize. It’s not clear that any online forum can serve as the basis for workers to find common cause and demand better working conditions, especially when the workforce is anonymous and in flux—or, in the parlance of crowdwork boosters, “flexible.”

Some well-intentioned reformers envision magnanimous employers as the sole source of changes that will make crowdworkers’ lives better. This view was on full display at a conference last year when eight prominent researchers delivered an important paper titled “The Future of Crowd Work,” framed around the question, “Can we foresee a future crowd workplace in which we would want our children to participate?” Of the many ideas that came out of this paper, none included any type of worker self-help or organization.

That view is currently being challenged in what may turn out to be a seminal class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in California. Christopher Otey and Mary Greth, on behalf of themselves and “the World’s Largest Workforce,” are arguing that crowdworkers are not simply contractors, but employees of the crowdworking company. Otey and Greth performed “simple repetitive online tasks for the benefit of CrowdFlower.” For their efforts, they were paid less than the $2 to $3 per hour that the CEO of CrowdFlower has stated his workers make. Otey and Greth allege that workers earn between $1 and $2 per hour, and that some are compensated in online game credits, virtual money and enhanced video game capabilities.

The class may have as many as 4 million members, making it potentially one of the largest employment class actions in history. If the plaintiffs prevail, they will be categorized as employees of the crowdworking company rather than as contractors, and will therefore be entitled to the host of benefits and protections that employees receive. These include a minimum wage and overtime, protections from discrimination, a legally protected right to organize a union, workers compensation for injuries, unemployment compensation for layoffs, certain whistleblower protections and others.

The case has advanced past several of the many preliminary hurdles facing such an ambitious lawsuit; however, as this article goes to press, a settlement motion has been submitted for the judge’s approval. If the judge finds that the terms of the settlement are fair to all members of the class, then it is likely that another case will have to address whether the millions of crowdworkers are entitled to the protections and pay of employees.

Miriam Cherry, who was organizing an amicus brief by a group of labor law professors before the settlement motion, fears that a judge may not understand crowdwork and simply declare that the workers are contractors. However, she also fears that a judge or legislature will simply regulate crowdwork out of existence. “There’s a lot of ways that things can go right or things can go wrong, and it depends on cases like CrowdFlower to really tell us if they’re going to go right or if they’re going to go wrong,” Cherry says.

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For her part, Jones fears the possibility that a judge could rule against CrowdFlower and hold that she and others like her are employees. “It scares me,” she says. “I depend on this system. If things go the wrong way for Crowdflower, this could really crush the crowdworking market.”

Henderson could not wait for the resolution of this lawsuit. She has recently stopped Turking because the wages are too low to sustain even her life in a cheap room in the South Bronx. After four months chasing HITs, she described herself as being “too tired to Turk for $2 per hour.”

In mid-November, Henderson turned 53, and two weeks later, on December 1, she moved into a homeless shelter. Presumably it does not have Wi-Fi, so she wouldn’t be able to Turk even if she wanted.

Read Next: Gabriel Thompson details his life as a temp in California’s Inland Empire, the belly of the online shopping beast, in “The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday.

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