In 1911, the American engineer Frederick Taylor delivered a paper in which he announced that workers’ natural laziness and propensity for underworking was “the greatest evil which the working-people of both England and America are now afflicted.” His solution was a system of “scientific management,” wherein work would be divided into the smallest repeatable tasks and assigned a time limit. The aggregate of these tasks would then become the baseline for the workday, and “those who fail to rise to a certain standard are discharged and a fresh supply of carefully selected men are given work in their place.”
Almost a century later, Amazon hit upon a similar approach to worker productivity. Yet, whereas Taylor’s genius was in super-charging the assembly line by reducing all skilled work to tiny micro-tasks, the genius of Mechanical Turk is in creating virtual assembly lines.
Here’s how it works: the employers (called “Requesters”) can be actual humans or a computer program running a script that automatically outsources any task it cannot perform to the crowd. The Requesters place microtasks (called “Human Intelligence Tasks,” or HITs) on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website and offer non-negotiable contracts with a take-it-or-leave-it rate for each HIT. The Turkers (officially called “Providers”) perform only small microtasks over and over, rarely getting a glimpse of the whole. Using keyword searches for HITs, New York University professor Panagiotis Ipeirotis found that among the most numerous HITs were data collection, transcription, searches, tagging, content review, categorization and other similar tasks.
Crowdworkers also engage in tasks that can make certain individuals’ lives immeasurably better, such as providing near-instantaneous information on their surroundings for blind people with a smartphone and the right app.
A HIT typically includes a set of instructions, some quite involved, that one must read and understand before performing the task. The Requesters can set eligibility requirements. For example, they may restrict access to those with “Master Qualifications”—a designation Amazon awards at its discretion—that some have received after performing at least 50,000 HITs at an exceptionally high approval rate. Or the Requester may exclude certain workers, such as those from India, because in the world of online crowdworking, they are thought of as inferior workers.
Requesters can engage in such broad exclusions because the Civil Rights Act does not touch upon these workers. In fact, most of the hard-won worker protections of the twentieth century do not apply to Turkers. Some critics worry that even prohibitions on child labor are being flouted. This is because it is not clear how well some sites enforce requirements that users must be over 18 to perform HITs. Moreover, many crowdworkers are paid in gaming credits, which may be used to intentionally lure children into performing cheap labor. The payment offered for HITs ranges from nothing to a few dollars to payment in virtual currencies, with most HITs falling on the low end of the scale. As a result, it is estimated that the average wage of Turkers is approximately $2 an hour. For access to this unregulated labor pool, Amazon charges a 10 percent commission from the Requesters.
Turkers are categorized as independent contractors, meaning that they are not legally entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance or the various other statutory protections that cover employees. The multi-page participation agreement that all Turkers must consent to before entering the site specifies that the Turker is neither an employee of the Requester nor of Mechanical Turk. Amazon defines its role as being limited to “the capacity of a payment processor in facilitating the transactions between Requesters and Providers” and claims that it is “not responsible for the actions of any Requester or Provider.” Its agreement warns: “As a Requester or Provider, you use the Site at your own risk.”
After being reminded by Amazon of its lack of legal liability, one aggrieved Turker was baffled at how the company could profit from conduct that it hosts while saying it has no liability: “That’s like saying someone is running a slave market on my property, and they’re paying me, but I have no responsibility.”
Aside from the handful of companies that run crowdworking platforms, no one really knows who makes up the crowd. The most recent study of Turker demographics, in 2010, found that the vast majority of Turkers— 57 percent—were American, with Indians coming in second with 32 percent of the workforce. American Turkers tended to be highly educated, with 63 percent having college degrees, compared with the national average of 25 percent.
Good-paying” has become a relative term. Costello refuses to work for 60 cents or even $1.20 an hour because those low amounts are “more undignified than begging.” However, at $2 per hour she starts to equivocate, and she admits that she often works for that wage. Even those who describe making decent money usually talk about earning $6 per hour, which is still below the federal minimum wage.
Henderson went further than most. She said that at first, she tried to get other Turkers worked up about being scammed but found that her indignation did not appear to be shared. “In our day and age, it’s bread and circuses,” she said. “People don’t get angry anymore. I’m angry, but I can’t get other people to get angry.”
Henderson then filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Office of the New York Attorney General and anyone else she thought might have jurisdiction over the matter. However, because it is often impossible to know the identity of a given Requester, Henderson also went after Amazon.