when work is too demeaning for robots

Get a human to do it. Indeed as The Nation article says – some of the “requesters”, the people who actually offer tiny bits of tedious piecework to a vast mob of competing – desperate – workers are actually just computer scripts outsourcing work they cannot do.

The site they’re talking about is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Click on this link to see some of the work and cash on offer to the precarious and desperate.

This is the increasing reality of the tensions between increased automation of complex tasks, there are a whole host of things from transcription, to local business info, tagging, content review and so on that are still better done by humans, but of extremely low value. Even making better search results can be down to “crowdworkers”.

And what makes this even worse than hundreds of thousands of people making less than a pound an hour in many cases despite living in the US and Europe, is that the requesters can keep your work, not pay you, and give you a bad reputation just – er “because”.

And guess what? They do just that quite a bit.

Are crowd workers organising?

Well they kind of have – check out  We Are Dynamo. It didn’t last though, and the numerous online forums for crowd workers tend towards apathy and moaning rather than being spaces in which people can organise collective action, and the big class action suite against CrowdFlower was settled out of court, meaning it did not change the law to reclassify their crowd workers as employees (not to sniff at the results for the class members).

It’s a difficult question though – these scattered, anonymous, dispersed and mutually competing individuals are not going to come together in meaningful numbers around collective action without some inspiring and big judicial or legislative wins, and many don’t actively want to rock the boat and jeopardize the only source of income they have.

Like with Zero Hour Contracts it’s tempting to call for a straight ban, but is that actually what all workers want? And what would it mean in practice? It seems to me the jobs would simply be shifted underground or to countries with less regulated labour markets.

I think there needs as usual to be a multi pronged approach.

  1. Campaign for legislative change to reclassify crowd workers as employees – however difficult that would be especially in the UK for instance where it would have repercussions for wider employment regulations and employee Vs self employed definitions. So what this is really being used for is not necessarily to win that legislative change but to draw attention to this really hidden workforce, and test public support and crowd worker resilience.
  2. Facilitate the formation of a cooperative, global collaboration space where this work can be offered at a decent rate to crowd workers who can act collectively to set minimum wages, and pay a proportion of theirs to fund some kind of basic minimum guaranteed wage during fallow periods or sickness. It would realistically need to be a federation of country based cooperatives. And if that’s over ambitious – then just the fair decent paying market place would at least be an improvement.
  3. Target the crowd workers in Amazon Mechanical Turk with an intensive organising campaign – led by one of the international organising minded union federations such as Uni. But it would need to learn from the lessons of We Are Dynamo – a traditional organising model won’t work.


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