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Tech Policy / AI Ethics

Gig workers often get an unfair deal. This firm says it’s different.

LeadGenius claims to be an online contract company that treats its workers with more respect. Its founder and CEO Prayag Narula tells us why fairness is at its core.

Jun 24, 2019
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Many AI companies are hiding a dirty secret. Behind the algorithms, an army of humans toils away, generating training data.

Like Lyft and Uber drivers, these employees sometimes work in stressful and otherwise poor conditions. Or they face a race to the bottom in terms of wages, competing for work on platforms where the lowest bid wins the job. Many economists expect this type of work to become more common, too.

LeadGenius, a company founded by UC Berkeley researchers who studied online contract work, claims to be different. Its approach and philosophy—including fostering better conditions for its employees—may offer some valuable lessons about the future of work.

The company’s founder and CEO, Prayag Narula, met with MIT Technology Review’s senior AI editor, Will Knight, to discuss the firm’s effort to improve life as a gig worker.

How do you make sure gig workers are treated fairly? What are the key principles?

Fairness is hard to define but we have defined three major principles that encapsulate what we think are the right principles.

First, fair wages. We guarantee hourly wages that are enough to support a small family in the regions we operate. This may be two or three times the minimum wage, and it might mean that people who do the same work in different regions get paid different wages.

Second, cooperation over competition. Whoever makes a lowest bid for a job on UpWork or Fiverr or whoever responds fastest on Uber or Lyft gets to do the work. This basically creates a race to the bottom. During our time at UC Berkeley and beyond we published multiple papers showing that you get better results if people work together and cooperate. So we have built technology, processes and culture that encourages people to work together and support each other.

Third, growth opportunities. Most of the gig-economy work is focused on project-based work and doesn't tap into our inherent need to be challenged, appreciated, acknowledged, and to grow. We have built career tracks inside LeadGenius that makes sure that talented hard-working people grow inside the community. You can become a manager, you could even become a full-time employee who gets benefits and equity in the company. About 20% of our full-time people started this way.

There are other ways to look at fairness. We were one of the first organizations to sign the Good Work Code, an initiative by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

I feel really compelled to call out companies who hide their human input under the guise of 'AI'. If you are not giving acknowledgment to people for their contribution you are dehumanizing them. This is why I say that even the name 'Mechanical Turk' Amazon gave to its online gig economy service is cruel and disrespectful.

UC Berkeley

What are the next steps for building a more socially responsible company?

We have a sophisticated way in which we collect data on our social impact, but if we were to boil it down to one stat, that would be the wages paid worldwide by LeadGenius. We have paid over $10 million in wages so far. We are now planning on investing a lot more in training and collaboration and placing people not just in LeadGenius but outside, too. That way anyone (whether a LeadGenius customer or not) can get access to talented and trained people around the world. We are actively looking for partners for this initiative.

Our goal is to pay out $100 million in wages by 2023.

What does $10 million actually achieve? In other words, how can you measure worker well-being, happiness, and progress more effectively?

Great question. You are absolutely right that $10 million doesn’t say much about the social impact. It is important to understand the context behind it. Every 6 to 9 months we collect data on the economic change that members of our community have seen in their lives because of LeadGenius. We collect data on how many people were unemployed or underemployed before joining LeadGenius (87%). For 25% of our community members, LeadGenius is their sole source of income; for an additional 27%, it’s their largest source of income. And for over 80% of the community members, LeadGenius proceeds are used towards basic needs (food, rent, health care).

We also ask people to share their general opinion about how their life has changed qualitatively. The feedback is almost universally positive. Here’s a quote from the last survey: “It gave me confidence, build trust in people. It's a continuous support system not only in terms of monetary aspect but also new things to learn, experience. No matter we're all from different backgrounds—all of us are equally treated, given opportunity to work together in such a great platform.”

Companies need to go beyond eye-catching numbers and put processes in place to understand that impact (positive and negative).

Did you see the most recent story about Facebook’s contract moderators? How can big companies like Facebook try to be more ethical, and ensure that its contractors are, too?

I did, and honestly it was painful to read. Look, I understand the issues associated with building a large group of contractors and the challenges it represents, but I would blame Cognizant for creating a work culture that toxic and failing to heed the voices of its own people. Making false promises, not being transparent, making people feel trapped, and treating them as replaceable commodities represent rotten company culture gone completely rogue.

Where Facebook and (a lot of other companies) go wrong is that they never vet their vendors for ethical business practices around how they treat their knowledge workers. Essentially what Facebook is saying is that if they don’t employ the people directly, they have no say in their well-being. This is total BS.

The best thing these companies can do is to take the well-being of their and their vendors’ contractors seriously. We have seen this point brought up again and again in manufacturing, where a lot of companies were accused of essentially using sweatshops. After a huge uproar, company policies were changed around the world. However, we have strangely turned a blind eye toward knowledge workers, who are as prone to bad work conditions and culture as at any sweatshop in Bangladesh or India.

In order to pay workers more, isn’t LeadGenius just moving gig work higher up the food chain? Won’t that simply replace other jobs with less stable ones?

I am not sure that LeadGenius is moving gig work up the food chain so much as reacting to the change. Our broader goal is to make sure that the gig economy model isn’t abused and to create a company that proves treating people right and paying them fair wages makes business sense.

Mary Gray said in her book Ghost Work that gig economy jobs are not just here to stay but are the future of work. So the gig economy is coming for a lot of “stable” jobs, including mine and yours. The least we can do is amplify the advantages of these jobs (flexibility, more control, focus on output rather than efforts) and try to balance out the negatives.