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The Truth About Digital Sweat Shops

The fear is that online labor markets, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, allow unscrupulous employers to exploit disadvantaged workers. The truth appears somewhat different.

Last month, Jonathan Zittrain, cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, published an article in Newsweek about online labour markets such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Here, employers advertise mindless tasks that are too complex for computers but which workers from anywhere in the world can do for a few pennies per pop; things like labelling pictures with keywords or writing and sending spam.

The online labor market is transforming the world of work. It gives workers the chance to work for themselves in relatively safe conditions away from tyrannical bosses and at times that suit them. It also gives employers access to a global pool of flexible workers, 24 hours a day.

On the face of it, that looks great, said Zittrain. But there’s a darker aspect to all this. “Online contracting circumvents a range of labor laws and practices, found in most developed countries, that govern worker protections, minimum wage, health and retirement benefits, child labor,” he wrote.

And since workers may not have any idea of who they are working for or why, they can unknowingly become involved in nefarious activities. He suggested: “Iran’s leaders could ask Turkers to cross-reference the faces of the nation’s 72 million citizens with those of photographed demonstrators. Based on Mechanical Turk’s current rates, Repression 2.0 would cost a mere $17,000 per protester.” The online labor market is just another sweat shop in digital form, says Zittrain.

These are certainly reasons for concern but what do the workers themselves think of their newfound employers? This is the question that John Horton from Harvard University investigates today.

He carried out a survey of 200 workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT). (He paid 12c per response which is equivalent to an hourly rate of $5.68, good money on AMT, if you can get it.) He asked each respondent one of two questions. Either:

What percentage (between 0 and 100) of Employers in your home country would you estimate treat workers honestly and fairly?


What percentage (between 0 and 100) of Mechanical Turk Requesters would you estimate treat workers honestly and fairly?

AMT requesters can choose to pay out after a task has been completed so they have the option of cheating their employees with little or no comeback. But if that actually happened, online workers ought to have a dim view of online employees.

The results of the survey show something else. Online workers view both offline and online employees more or less equally. In other words, they believe their chances of being treated fairly are as good or better online as they are offline. “Contrary to our prior expectations, rampant exploitation is a mischaracterization,” says Horton.

Of course, perceptions of fairness are not necessarily a measure of actual fairness but they give an interesting window into this debate.

As with almost any endeavor, the benefits of online labor have to be balanced against the disadvantages. Horton points out that the benefits are potentially huge: the markets give people in poor countries access to buyers in rich countries.

He reports in the same paragraph that “the World Bank estimates that in 2008 remittances to developing countries were over $305 billion, which exceeds both private capital flows and social development aid.” (Although it isn’t clear how much of that money is generated from online labour markets.)

These changes are potentially transformative for the world’s poor.

That’s why calls to regulate the online labour market need to be carefully judged. One idea is to force Amazon to verify that each new task is not being used to generate spam. That seems overly draconian. If the price of transformative change for some of the world’s poorest people is that spam filters have to work a little harder, so be it (perhaps workers on AMT could filter spam in inboxes).

What’s needed of course is more research studying these workers and the effect that the online labor market is having on them. At $5.68 an hour, most AMT workers would be happy to help.

Ref: The Condition of the Turking Class: Are Online Employers Fair and Honest?

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