The global digital assembly line has arrived

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Op-Ed Section of The Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2016

The global digital assembly line has arrived. Its workers labor at computer keyboards, performing the behind-the-scenes tasks that make the Internet appear intelligent and functional. They assign labels like “family” or “theme park” to photos, check that Web URLs work, verify addresses on Yelp!, and review social media posts flagged as “adult content.”

Corporations, from the smallest start-ups to the largest firms, can now “taskify” everything from scheduling meetings and debugging websites, to finding sales leads and managing fulltime employees’ HR files. Instead of hiring help, firms just post their needs to the Web.

This digital piecework, or “crowdwork,” represents a radical shift in how we define employment in the global labor market. And while today crowdwork is most commonly used to perfect marketing surveys, Internet searches, automatic image recognition, and language translation, it is poised to take over far more familiar jobs.

The individuals performing this work are of course not traditional employees, but neither are they freelancers. They are, instead, “users” or “customers” of Web-based platforms that deliver pre-priced tasks like so many DIY kits ready for assembly. Transactions are bound not by employee-employer relationships but by “user agreements” and Terms of Service that resemble software licenses or customer service guidelines more than an employment contract.

Hundreds of thousands of workers, hoping to earn a living or supplement their current income, have created accounts on a range of websites, that offer not a job with a set number of hours but a marketplace of pre-priced tasks that may be perused, claimed, and completed in a matter of minutes. An account holder may even find a steady flow of tasks posted to the marketplace by regulars seeking a standing army of labor for their projects. While there are no rules of engagement, for parties involved in these labor transactions, beyond those set by the website owners.

Researchers at Oxford University’s Martin Programme on Technology and Employment estimate that nearly 30% of United States jobs alone could be organized like this within 20 years. Forget the rise of robots and the distant threat of automation. The greater threat is the Uber-izing of human labor, fragmenting jobs into outsourced tasks and dismantling wages into micropayments.

In the U.S. and overseas, crowdwork payments can mean the difference between scraping by and saving for a home or working toward a degree. But as Riyaz Khan, a 35-year-old from a small town in the coastal state of Andhra Pradesh in India, discovered, doing work on spec posted by someone you’ll never meet and who has no legal obligations to you as your boss can have serious disadvantages.

Our team at Microsoft Research spent two years studying the lives of hundreds of American and Indian crowdworkers like Khan to learn how they manage this nascent form of employment and the capriciousness that comes with it. Khan, when we met him, had spent three years finding work on Amazon Mechanical Turk. AMT is one of the largest of several online marketplaces that connect “providers” from around the world like Khan with “requesters,” typically U.S. or European businesses or individuals. He did tasks for companies as big as Google and as small as neighborhood print shops.

On good days, he made $40 in 10 hours working from his home computer, more than 100 times what neighboring farmers earned. He soon found more tasks than he could complete himself. So he hired locals to work with him out of his living room. In exchange for a cut of their pay, Khan helped his crew create their own accounts, taught them how to complete tasks efficiently, and ferreted out tasks that best matched his workers’ skillsets. He also handled any final queries after the competed task was submitted. They called themselves Team Genius.

Three years in, now dependent on this income to support family and friends, Khan heard worrying tales of Indian workers’ AMT accounts being shut down. One by one, members of Team Genius lost their accounts.
Then it happened to him. An email from Amazon’s Customer Service Team offered no explanation beyond:

I am sorry but your Amazon Mechanical Turk account was closed due to a violation of our Participation Agreement and cannot be reopened. Any funds that were remaining on the account are forfeited, and we will not be able to provide any additional insight or action. You may review the Participation Agreement/Conditions of Use at this URL: http://www.mturk.com/mturk/conditionsofuse. Thank you for trying Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Best regards, Laverne P. We value your feedback, please rate my response using the link below.’

Using a “Contact Us” link, Khan sent several messages pleading his case. He received auto-replies thanking him for his patience. He reached out to past requesters he’d come to know over his 3 years on the AMT platform. His closest “work associate” (Riyaz’s reference for a repeat requester) provided him with several months of steady work verifying websites for business listings in Canada. Riyaz even voluntarily created an 11-minute training video for this requester to share with other AMT providers working on his project. He never heard back from any requester he contacted. And the auto-replies offered no information about how to appeal or retrieve the money funds he’d banked with AMT for completed tasks over the last two months. Instead, he was referred to the vague, cold realities of the agreement’s “Restrictions and Limitations” clause of the “Participation Agreement” which grants AMT the “right to terminate or suspend any Payment Account… or…. transfer or disbursement of any amounts, in each case for any reason in our sole discretion” if AMT believes that its users have violated the “Participation Agreement.”

Scores of requesters had already approved Khan’s work and paid him through AMT’s payments system, which banks the money until providers request a payout. But all bets are off if AMT suspends an account.

Such policies are not unique to AMT. Using Terms of Service and Participation Agreements as guidance for when — or whether — to pay people for work they have satisfactorily completed is standard practice in the crowdworking sphere. In the absence of any legal definition of the rights and responsibilities of parties involved, these account and service agreements are the default labor laws.

Khan scoured the Web for other customer service contacts. He wrote to an executive at Amazon — a huge risk. Calling attention to yourself is a fast track to a bad reputation where, like product reviews, approval ratings from those posting work determine what kinds of new work you can get. And there is no way for a worker to challenge that assessment. (Khan said the executive never wrote back.)

Six months later, without explanation, Khan received his final paycheck. Other members of Team Genius, unsure how to pursue resolution, got stiffed. None ever found out exactly why AMT suspended their accounts. I suspect they know what parts of the Participation Agreement they broke. Practices such as automating the acceptance of tasks, or transferring an account to another person violate AMT’s rules but are widespread among those in the United States and India alike who are trying to cobble together a full-time living.

As any freelancer can attest, getting paid remains one of the toughest parts of contract work. In the past, freelancers could pick up the phone or set up a face-to-face meeting with clients who took issue with their work or who hadn’t paid up. There is no such person to contact for recourse for these workers. There is no person clearly on the other side of the API at all. Crowdworkers are, more often than not, the dangling end of a long supply chain of subcontractors also trying to meet their clients’ demands on deadline.

Khan’s experience is a harbinger of the challenges to come as white-collar work moves to contract-driven, on-demand labor delivered through the Web. While crowdwork may seem like a small eddy of employment, contained to those who work on computer codes and web development, it looms like a tsunami of change for anyone whose routine work — from filing forms, and drafting standardized reports, to coordinating events — can be broken into bits and farmed out online. The relationships and benefits that we associate with brick and mortar workplaces are quickly evaporating into the ether of online employment.

The problem is that no single party in this marketplace, where businesses find the equivalent of a day laborer and individuals are “at work” whenever they sign onto their accounts, is clearly responsible for workers’ safety and well being.

We, as consumers, have an important role to play. We must recognize that crowdwork sites are not just technologies that deliver convenient services. They are sites of employment that encompass the globe. Right now, there are no clear rules for how this new form of employment should operate. As Team Genius’ case demonstrates, the right to be paid for one’s labor is no longer guaranteed. Centuries of global labor activism, from child labor laws to workplace safety guidelines, are left vulnerable. At the same time (the diehard optimist in me believes), the transition to this new world of work presents us with a chance to rethink what full time employment means, where it takes place, and how best to value it. It is also an opportunity to consider how best to collectively shoulder the burdens and reap the benefits of the global labor demands and conditions wrought by this latest of a long line of technological innovations to how we work.

The Amazons, GrubHubs, Upworks, and Ubers that profit from brokering this new work relationship certainly bear some responsibility. More broadly, state and national governments need to reset their labor rules and reweave social safety nets. This is not a simple matter of re-classifying crowdworkers as employees (though this must happen here, too, through enforcement of existing labor laws); rather we need to move beyond the fulltime-freelance divide to support workers no longer hitched to set hours or a fixed location. Maintaining a distinction between fulltime and freelance work doesn’t meet the business need and consumer demand for an all-hours, at-the-ready workforce. Nor does it address workers’ needs for portable healthcare, a basic income, paid leave, and retirement plans.

And who should pay for that? Corporations and governments would be wise to underwrite portable benefits plans; after all, companies stand to profit the most from a flexible on-demand workforce. With comprehensive universal benefits, more individuals could absorb the risks of letting their 9-to-5 jobs go. On-demand economies could stabilize into an economic engine for sustainable productivity. On the other hand, without such benefits, the global economy could further devolve into chronic underemployment, volatility and social unrest.

As the nation with the greatest number of tech companies dependent upon and profiting from the global digital assembly line, it’s up to the United States to set the bar for what gainful employment looks like in 21st century. We must do so with our own children in mind, as well as children, like Mr. Khan’s, living in places like Andhra Pradesh, for their futures are intertwined. And neither deserves an emailed pink slip that makes collecting one’s final paycheck a customer service nightmare. The world’s workers deserve a more dignified future.

The story above draws on a book that computer scientist Siddharth Suri are writing about the on-demand economy and the future of work.