Ghost Workers! How Facebook and Amazon rely on an invisible workforce
Contractors are starting to protest their dismal working conditions, but it’s an uphill battle.
You don't see them, but they're there: hundreds of thousands of people sitting at keyboards for hours on end to keep online services humming along seamlessly. It can seem like the Internet operates entirely automatically, but it doesn't. Humans are often hidden behind the scenes, working in real time to verify your identity, flag hate speech or caption videos. The market for on-demand, digital tasks is estimated by the World Bank to be worth $25 billion, with Facebook's Meta Platforms Inc., Amazon Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s YouTube some of the biggest buyers. Over the years they have collected an array of global on-demand digital workers whom they have kept at arms length. Therein lies the problem.
Rather than hire these workers directly, online companies coordinate them via outsourcing agencies like Accenture Plc or Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp., who in turn hire from yet other agencies like some vast, intricate puppet show. The work is often secretive, the hours unstable and the pay low.
When contrasted with the high-salaried engineers and policy wonks for Big Tech firms who enjoy catered meals and free karate lessons, contractors are cheap labor at the bottom of the ladder. There's a term for what they do — “Ghost Work,” coined by Microsoft Corp. researchers Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, who made it the title of a 2019 book.
Some contractors have begun to agitate for change, but it's a long road piled high with obstacles. Earlier this month, several content moderators for Facebook in the U.S. threatened a work stoppage — the first known action of its kind by such workers — via an open letter to Accenture and Mark Zuckerberg. Hundreds of their colleagues had not received a paycheck for January and if the money wasn't paid, they would step away from their keyboards. Within minutes of the email being sent, many workers received $1,500 in their accounts, according to Foxglove, a non-profit tech advocacy group in the U.K. that has advised dozens of moderators on potential legal action against Facebook. Other moderators also recently complained that Accenture had ordered them back into the office; Facebook's salaried staff was allowed to work from home amid the spread of Omicron.
Accenture eventually reversed its order. This all comes on top of a $52 million settlement that moderators reached with Facebook in May 2020 over working conditions, after the toxic nature of their work — reviewing images of violence and abuse — was exposed in wide-ranging press reports.
Even so, their working conditions largely haven't changed. Each workday is “tracked by the second,” according to one content moderator in the U.S., contacted via Foxglove and who commented only on the condition of anonymity. In addition to assenting to production quotas, most sign strict non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from discussing their work with family and friends. “The work is miserable,” the content moderator added. “But people are too afraid to lose their jobs.”
The same fear exists among contractors with Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, a marketplace for doing micro-tasks that earn a few cents at a time. Anyone can be a “turker” by signing up to the platform and carrying out human-intelligence tasks or HITs, like identifying objects in a series of images or answering survey questions. Hundreds of thousands of people have done this work from their homes, earning an average hourly wage of just over $3, or more if they have the right software tools. Sherry Stanley, a North Carolina-based mother of three, has been a turker for seven years and for much of that time the platform was her sole source of income; she has worked roughly 15 hours a day to make between $60 and $100. Amazon can use training data produced by turkers to help develop its own AI services.(2)
For Stanley and others, the problem with Amazon MTurk wasn't so much the low pay but the instability — specifically, the random “mass rejections” of their work by anonymous “requesters,” which could lead to no pay at all for hours of work. Leaders of a handful of the biggest online forums for MTurk workers last year spent months cautiously discussing what to do. With input from Stanley and others, they finally agreed to put their weight behind a petition. It was posted online earlier this month and calls on several named Amazon executives to better regulate rejected work and communicate more with the forum leaders.
Turkers have rarely agitated against Amazon, lest they upset a careful equilibrium they have with its platform, so the petition is a rare step into the unknown. In the past two weeks, it has amassed 374 signatures; at 500, they aim to submit it to Amazon.
Still, with contract labor on the rise across the world, the vast majority of digital workers find themselves lacking due attention from their Big Tech employers, respectable schedules and decent pay.
The petitions from Facebook's and Amazon's digital workers are impressive but arguably too small, like drops in the ocean, to look like promising steps towards better conditions. A more impactful (and more stressful) avenue may be the courts, as demonstrated by drivers for Uber Technologies Inc., who last year won the right to minimum wage and sick pay after suing the company in the U.K.'s High Court.
While Alphabet contractors were allowed to join its full-time employees' union last year, there's scant evidence that union activity has improved their conditions in the same way court action has.
Mary L. Gray, the Microsoft researcher who wrote “Ghost Work,” estimates the number of people who do such work will grow as more of our communications and creative work goes online, and AI continues to need constant hand-holding by humans. She says her own research has shown that better treatment for contractors, including better pay and stability, leads to higher quality work, which is in everyone's best interests.
“We know that those working conditions have a profound effect on what kind of information we consume,” she says. “You can't extract value out of cognitive work if somebody's hungry.”
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of 'We Are Anonymous.'