How ‘Microwork’ Preys on the Desperate (and Other Reasons to Avoid It)

How ‘Microwork’ Preys on the Desperate (and Other Reasons to Avoid It)
Photo: nelen, Shutterstock

Like driving for Uber or delivering groceries for Doordash, signing up for a microwork site sounds pretty tempting: If you have internet, you can make money doing simple tasks on the computer. But as is so often the case, microwork isn’t the easy side hustle it’s made out to be. Here’s everything you should know.

What “microwork” actually means

Microwork is a series of microtasks, which sociologist Antonio Casilli defines as “fragmented and under-remunerated productive processes.” Companies break up big projects into small tasks that can be performed by anyone with an internet connection, then hire people to do them for very little money, usually through a third party that handles the staffing. Mega-corporations use private firms like Samasource, while smaller companies find workers through user-facing platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr, and ClickWorker.

The nature of microwork is highly variable, to say the least. Sometimes it’s as simple as clicking on ads to drive traffic; sometimes it’s more complex, like transcribing audio or formatting files. Often, it’s for billion-dollar corporations like Google, Amazon, Netflix, or Meta/Facebook/Instagram, which hire microwork contractors en masse to generate and review data for machine-learning algorithms and artificial intelligence products. Workers are paid a set rate for each task they complete, and not the time it takes to do it.

This is nothing new; people have gotten paid on a task-by-task basis for as long as paid work has existed. Microwork just makes those tasks as small as possible and renders the workers who do them completely invisible — both to their employers and each other. That invisibility is so ingrained that anthropologist Mary L. Grey and others call it “ghost work.”

It pays less than the federal minimum wage

The single most important thing to know about microwork is that the pay is trash. Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), one of the most popular platforms, allows “requesters” (hiring entities) to pay workers as little as one cent per assignment. Exceeding that minimum is costly: Amazon collects a 20% fee on every cent paid out to workers, but for tasks that require 10 or more assignments, their fee goes up to 40%.

Unsurprisingly, this translates to low earnings for the vast majority of workers. A 2017 study of 3.8 million tasks performed by 2,676 AMT workers found that their median hourly wage was just $US2 (A$2.73), and only 4% earned more than $US7.25 (A$10) per hour. In 2019, the same researchers studied the demographics and wages of 1,238 AMT workers. They found that US-based workers earned a median hourly wage of $US3.01 (A$4.10), while workers in India earned just $US1.41 (A$2).

These wage gaps highlight an open secret about microwork: Inequality is baked right in. Firms who handle massive contracts find candidates through “impact sourcing,” which is a nice way of saying that they target people in desperate economic situations — including refugees — because they’re easier to underpay. This 2012 Harvard Business Review article on microwork lays it out in an unintentionally mask-off way.

Actually getting paid is a huge pain in the arse

On top of low wages, microwork requires a significant amount of unpaid labour just to get paid. Workers have to browse the postings until something decent pops up, do the work, submit it, wait for approval, then wait for the money to hit their account. If their work isn’t accepted — or the platform suspends their account, which happens to AMT workers pretty frequently — they’re shit out of luck.

You’re on your own — and that’s the point

The most insidious aspect of microwork is the way it keeps workers completely in the dark in every possible way. Many workers’ contracts are such that they don’t know who their coworkers are or even what project they’re working on — they could be training a billion-dollar algorithm for pennies an hour and have no idea. Here’s how author Phil Jones described this unique predicament in an October 2021 interview with Brazilian outlet Digital Labour:

[M]icroworkers in countries such as India, the Philippines and Venezuela – the countries where much of this work is outsourced to – are in a contradictory position. On the one hand, they have immense potential power to cause serious disruption to these platforms by organising and going on strike. Yet, they are also doing a highly fragmented kind of work, where they are often alone working in their homes or in internet cafes, frequently hamstrung by non-disclosure agreements and the threat of having their accounts closed down.

There’s no good way to do microwork as it currently exists, but that doesn’t change the fact that people need money to live. If you or someone you know plans to sign up for one of the many sites out there, the best thing to do is connect with other workers. Join the forums or subreddit for your platform of choice, and if you’re already on AMT, install the Turkopticon script. (It lets workers report scams and shady employers.) Don’t try to go it alone — collective action is the only way out of this mess.

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