The federal minimum wage has effectively been stagnating since the 1960s, and even the recent spate of state minimum wage hikes have lagged far behind the rising cost of living. But if workplace regulations seem to evolve at a glacial pace, there’s a quickly rising threat of exploitation from the digital economy’s cutting edge: in the rapidly evolving digital workforce, labor standards are stuck in a primitive state, with no minimum wage and virtually no standards.
The world of crowdsourced labor—short-term jobs, projects and grunt work that allow every netizen to become a mini-boss or mini-temp—is a new frontier. The online platforms of companies like Mechanical Turk provide virtual hiring halls in which people request and advertise miscellaneous help, ranging from sorting someone’s e-mail inbox to participating in an online behavioral study. But questions have bubbled up about how our existing labor laws—many created in the Depression era—can be grafted onto a labor structure that is inherently borderless and perilously “flexible.”
The lack of structure and standards produce innumerable opportunities for exploitation, particularly when tasks do not involve face-to-face human contact (like processing spreadsheet data for an entrepreneur in Berlin): should e-mail sorting be paid per hour or by megabyte? What happens if your worker runs away or your task-requester refuses to pay?
A major class-action lawsuit recently sought to clarify the expanding gray area of “cloud labor.” Workers sued Crowdflower, one of the largest crowdsourced labor sites, accusing it of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by claiming they were not paid minimum wage or in some cases not paid at all. The suit is now in the process of reaching a settlement that is expected to restore thousands of dollars of back pay to the claimants, but questions remain about how the industry will be regulated going forward.
Former cloud laborer Christopher Otey accused Crowdflower of violating the law for linking him to jobs that paid less than minimum wage, and also charged that Crowdflower’s entire business model is structured to ensure that task requesters can pay micro-taskers less than the legal minimum, perhaps the equivalent of just $2 or $3 per hour.
Crowdflower denies that it plays such a controlling role in the labor exchange. Crowdflower spokesperson Julie Crabill told Crowdsourcing.org in 2013: