Gains made more than a century ago by unionized workers are being wiped out in the Internet age, Grafstein Lecturer says (photo courtesy The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives via Flickr)

Exploiting digital workers through global crowdsourcing

Using contract or piece workers instead of employees

"Crowdsourcing industries are wiping away over 100 years of labour struggles overnight,” Professor Trebor Scholz told his audience during the 2014 Grafstein Lecture in Communications.

Scholz, an associate professor of culture and media at the Eugene Lang College of the New School in New York, spoke at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law March 6 to discuss the millions of “invisible” workers across the globe who earn their living from crowdsourcing websites. He is the author of a monograph on the history of the social Web and its Orwellian economies.

The lecture focused on Internet marketplaces, such as 99Designs, CrowdFlower and Amazon Mechanical Turk, which give businesses access to a pool of digital workers whom they can enlist to perform menial tasks for minimal costs.

Scholz took aim at the idea of “Internet exceptionalism” to argue that digital workers ought to be treated the same as other labourers.

“Before the Internet, it would be very difficult to sit someone down for 10 minutes of work, and then fire them,” he said. But, he said, that is what crowdsourcing websites are doing.

“Employers get all the work, without the worker.”

Amazon Mechanical Turk

Scholz devoted a large portion of his lecture to Amazon Mechanical Turk.

AMT was founded in 2005 as an offshoot of Jeff Bezos’s Internet giant, and now has approximately 500,000 registered workers, the vast majority of whom live in the U.S. and India.

AMT workers are hired as independent contractors – allowing companies to avoid minimum-wage laws, overtime rules and workers’ compensation benefits – to perform tasks such as tagging, labelling images and transcribing video recordings.

The rationale for employers that use AMT labour, Scholz said, is that it is cheaper to hire 1,000 people to edit 4 images for a few cents each, than to hire 1 person to do the job full time.

Defenders of crowdsourcing marketplaces highlight the flexibility, opportunity and choice that they offer their workers, some of whom, Scholz said, report that they work for fun.

Proponents also argue that if it truly was exploitative, people would not do the work. But Scholz criticized this “rhetoric of empowerment”.

His research has found that 18 per cent of the workers on AMT are trying to make a full-time living, earning roughly $2 an hour.

“They know they are being exploited,” Scholz said. “It’s like a single mother working three jobs to support her kids. She knows she is being exploited, but what choice does she have?”

One of the most controversial aspects of this AMT model is that employers can decide not to pay for the services if they are not satisfied with the work, but then proceed to use the finished product anyway.

“For employers, it is a sweet deal,” Scholz said. “They remain anonymous. They don’t have to pay if they are not satisfied. They have access to a 24-hour workforce.”

Uniting workers

Scholz suggested that organizing the digital workforce will be difficult because of many novel challenges. The cross-border landscape of the digital workforce is one major obstacle, he said. “It’s hard to gain legal recognition for such a transnational workforce.”

Thus far, little action has been taken to protect these workers, according to Scholz.

“It is the most unregulated marketplace in history,” he said. “Where are the protesters? Where are the union organizers?”

Scholz pointed to one website that offers clues as to how a more organized digital workforce may take shape. Turkopticon is a website that allows AMT workers to connect and evaluate employers.

“It helps people in the crowd to look out for each other,” he said, “because nobody else seems to be.” Scholz compared this nascent effort at worker organization to the etchings on fence posts that hobos once used to communicate with each other, signaling whether a property was friendly or hostile.

Another potential problem, alluded to by one of the members of the audience, may be the misperceptions that people carry with respect to some of the more professional-oriented crowdsourcing sites, such as TopCoder.

The audience member, who is also a professor, said many of his computer science students see these crowdsourcing marketplaces positively, as a way to acquire skills, get recognized and eventually break into an industry. “How do we deconstruct that?” he asked.

Scholz responded by reiterating his earlier caveat – namely, that not everyone who uses these websites is getting a raw deal.

“It’s problematic to talk about false consciousness,” Scholz said. “It’s not all exploitative. People in Germany have told me, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re making a very good living.’”

However, for those trying to survive as full-time labourers on websites such as AMT, Scholz paints a bleak picture.

He points to U.S. President Barack Obama’s current plea to Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 as a depressing sign of the times.

“Really,” he asked, “you have to make a case for that?”

The Grafstein Annual Lecture in Communications was established by Senator Jerry S. Grafstein, Q.C., Class of 1958, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his graduation from the Faculty of Law and the 10th anniversary of the graduation of his son, Laurence Grafstein and daughter-in-law, Rebecca Grafstein (née Weatherhead), both from the Class of 1988.


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