Crowds coming - Millions of people solve tasks via the Internet at one of the most unruly labor markets ever.
Translated by Google:
Over a decade has grown a giant swarm of workers spanning the globe. No one can say for certain (how many are the) cloud of anonymous workers who keep going and drop out, but it concerns several million. They perform microscopic, repetitive tasks online, often for as little as two dollars an hour. Some call them network slaves. Get familiar with one of the most unruly of work, namely "crowd work."
Kristy Milland is a typical crowd worker or "crowdworker," a (Canadian) woman with primary education. Ten years ago she discovered the web service Mechanical Turk, a platform where anyone can perform small, simple tasks and earn money. It did not offer large sums of money, but it could supplement her income from her childcare practice. She decided when she was going to work and how long. But what she thought was a dream job would prove to be a nightmare.
Amazon launched the Mechanical Turk in 2005.
The service offers a crowd of workers who are ready to perform tasks for a price that customers themselves set. Crowd workers perform the tasks we take for granted on the Internet. As you get recommended items in online shops based on your previous purchases, you realize a crowd works behind it. If you search for "happy lady", it is often crowd workers who have sorted and labeled images of exuberant women.
In 2010, the husband of Kristy Milland became unemployed, and the family was suddenly dependent on the income from her work as a "Turker". For two years she worked full time through Mechanical Turk. When there were enough job to get, she worked seven days a week, and often 17 hours a day. Other times it was poor with work.
- It was almost more stressful than working all day. You are sitting in front of computer and waiting. Flexibility of such work (does not exist). It would have been flexible if there was always work, but there is not. You work when there are tasks, she says.
Revenues changed dramatically from day to day and month to month. Milland believe that she earned $ 50 thousand a year. When she worked and she was clever. - I was a "Super Turker" and I refused to work for less than 15-20 dollars an hour, she says. The situation has changed since Milland worked full time as a crowd worker. Amazon has no minimum payment for tasks. Two dollars an hour is the average salary of workers who work through Mechanical Turk (SG: I don't know where they got this, but it's not from me.) In addition, Amazon just doubled the commission they charge per task to 20 percent. Amazon no longer accepts international customers (workers or Requester), and it has meant that the tasks have been fewer. According to Milland, this creates a crowd work (monopsony). The Requester knows that the workers are fighting for tasks (to work on) and thus they pay less and less.
Malene Sihm Vejlsgaard, founder of the Danish crowd working platform Boblr, confirms that prices on the global crowd labor is falling. It worries her.
- Crowd Workers must be cautious. They should know what they are going to and what they must sign when they choose platform to work through, she says. Today Kristy Milland does not think that she could earn enough money through Mechanical Turk. She has had to resort to working on more crowd working platforms, which there now are hundreds of. Microsoft has its Universal Human Relevance System (UHR). CrowdFlower in the US say they have workers from 208 countries and territories who have performed 1.7 billion assignments, while in Europe is ClickWorker, a marketplace with 700,000 workers. UpWork, which has a European office at Fornebu, says that they have matched 7900 freelancers with 9400 Norwegian businesses.
Critics - Kristy Milland is one of them - believe that Amazon's Mechanical Turk and similar platforms have created the most unregulated labor market that has ever existed. An abundance of labor leads to extreme competition between workers, which has no relation to their employers. The tasks given are often monotonous and repetitive. A crowd worker Refleks talked to, who requested anonymity because of confidentiality statements she has signed, says that she feels like a small cog in a giant machine, which can easily be replaced.
Anonymous requesters may refuse to pay for the work, even when they retain (the submission), without the workers (being paid). This has led to the crowd workers being exposed to fraud. To perform tasks (on platforms) such as "mTurk", you must certify that you are over 18, but no one checks that the child does not actually work.
- What laws (can control) a global marketplace? How does one determine (a minimum) hourly rate when Americans, Indians and Filipinos perform the same tasks? asks Milland. Amazon responded that they have no special responsibility for workers on Mechanical Turk.
- Those who work as so-called "Turkers" are our customers. They have the freedom to choose what kind of tasks they will and will not work with, says Rena Lunak spokesperson in Amazon. Regarding allegations that Mechanical Turk open to fraud, says Lunak that Amazon has a group that is working hard to eliminate such tasks.
Many of the tasks "Turkers" and other crowd workers do are about "cleaning" the internet. When a video on You Tube, or a picture on Twitter are "flagged" it is often crowd workers who check the contents. - I've seen terrible things. You (are at) peace and (in) no danger while you watch and notice images of flowers and cute little animals. And then without warning you will see pictures of dead people. War. Photos you wish you never saw, tells Milland.
Via (tweets), she has seen torturing animals and child pornography. No warning was given in advance, and no debriefing was offered afterwards. Of course not. Crowdworkers are freelancers and responsible for themselves. They can opt out of tasks that they do not like, can not they?
Milland believes that it is not always true because many crowd workers are already in vulnerable situations. - There may be people who cannot work because they have a handicap, who cannot get jobs because they do not exist or because they are former convicts. Can they refuse to do work they do not like? Crowd work flourishes best among desperate people, she says.
Milland wrote an email to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to make herself known as one of his "Turkers." She was surprised when she received a personal reply back and was inspired to start the campaign: "We are humans, not algorithms." - I wanted to show the people behind the anonymous crowd, she says. Although the campaign did not lead to concrete changes in working conditions on Mechanical Turk, it received much attention. - Suddenly researchers, journalists and requesters realized : They are people! They are available. They find each other on forums and are talking together. Milland believes that Turkers have a lot to say. Some of the companies which availed themselves of crowd workers became aware that they had to pay better and have greater transparency in the use of services.
The American professor Trebor Scholz dreams of cooperatives that crowd workers themselves own and that can protect workers against the economic uncertainty that crowd work represents. These cooperatives must according Scholz be collectively owned, be democratic, have a goal to provide stable jobs, provide health and pension insurance and have a degree of dignity. "In New York, there are already 24 worker-run cooperatives, almost all run by women. Over the past few years, low-paid workers who join these cooperatives had raised his salary from 10 to 25 dollars an hour, "writes Scholz on Medium. Milland supports this idea. She believes that workers in such collectives can gain control and freedom to communicate with each other. Customers will get better quality, because workers will be more satisfied, she believes. Researchers have estimated that 70 percent of workers on Mechanical Turk quit shortly after joining. - Satisfied workers will remain, learning the tools and becoming even better, says Milland. Milland thinks crowd workers can make it better. Meanwhile, she wonders how many companies will cut back on the workforce and outsource work to crowd workers.
- Crowd Work could be a career for some, but at the same time replace other's careers, says Milland.
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