If the online labor platform Mechanical Turk is any indication, the workplace of the future has no walls, no national borders, and virtually no limits to growth. Mechanical Turk, or MTurk, is a rapidly expanding “crowd labor” service run by Amazon, which harnesses the networked nature of our world to create a mammoth transnational hiring hall. But is this digital workplace without limits also operating without sensible labor rules?
A new survey of MTurk’s workforce data by Pew Research Center reveals an “on-demand” labor market that looks a lot like sweatshop-via-telecommute. MTurk users, or “Turkers,” connect to “requesters” through an online platform assigning short-term “intelligence task” projects, ranging from web research to answering questionnaires, in exchange for small electronic payments. It’s piecework for the information age.
The workforce seemingly represents the “future of work,” both its endemic inequities and social promise: younger and more educated, about half holding college degrees, primarily white. But despite their credentials, MTurk earnings often dip well below the legal minimum: “about half of workers (52%) in our sample who were asked about their incomes report earning a rate of less than $5 an hour…. Only 8% say they earn $8 per hour or more.” Those rates are in striking contrast with the national figures: Only 4 percent of wage workers earn at or below the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, a rate that drops to just 2 percent for workers with bachelor’s degrees.
For many, MTurk isn’t just a side gig. Two-thirds of surveyed workers reported that they used MTurk’s platform daily, and a quarter rely on the site for “all” or “most” of their incomes.
A century ago, the “home work” system earned women pennies an hour cutting trimmings in their kitchens. Today’s Turkers grind away at “short, repetitive ‘micro tasks’ that…could be completed in a few minutes,” earning a shocking dime or less a pop. Work is churned out of isolated environments fanned across countries with vastly different labor standards.