Hidden in plain sight

As the ‘gig economy’ and the concept of platform work has risen in visibility over the last very years with Uber and Deliveroo being perhaps the most visible among platform workers, those who work as micro taskers for services such as Amazon Mechanical Turk(AMT) have for many passed below the radar.

‘The basic philosophy of microtasking and AMT is to delegate tasks that are difficult for computers to do to a human workforce.’[1]  AMT takes the processing power that human beings have and provides a way of incorporating this in to how companies do business. AMT allows companies access to ‘human computation’- work that is within the ‘paradigm of computation, and as such might someday be solvable by computers.’[2] This could include work ‘such as language, visual processing and reasoning.’[2] AMT operates as an infrastructure to access ‘human computation’. For companies the work created is ultimately equated to work done by machines. There is little to no appreciation that the person creating these outputs has a life like anyone else.  The messiness of human work that enables to happen is disguised  ‘by hiding workers behind web forms and APIs.’ [3]

Much like those platform workers that have more visibility, those who work on AMT occupy a legal space where basic employment right are limited to none. Even once Turkers have completed the unit of work they were assigned, payment is not guaranteed. Those setting tasks can decide whether or not they want to pay the Turker for the task.  ‘This discretion allows employers to reject work that does not meet their needs, but also enables wage theft.’[3] Employer can chose not to pay workers, even if their work is used later on the worker is unable to effectively challenge this.

Like Uber who seek to replace human drivers with automation , and delivery platforms using robots, AMT aims to ultimately do away with the human aspect of their work and move to a world where machines do all the work. As we move towards this world humanity needs to reassess the relationship we have with work.

Currently with regard to employment law the onus is on the individual worker to assert their rights and ask the courts to pass judgement, deciding on the reality of the working relationship. For most workers this is done through unions who can cover the substantial costs of bringing such action. Unions traditionally organise through workplaces, as workplaces move online unions need to change how the way they operate to defend and protect these workers. Legislators need to update how mechanism that protect workers are enforced in the ‘new world of work’.

Companies’ interests lie with their shareholders, not necessarily with society. Currently it appears that companies bypass these mechanisms of protection knowing they are unlikely to be challenged by workers who feel powerless to act, and unions who don’t know how to face these new challenges. If this continues we as a society allow the powerful puppet masters of venture capital to profit at the expense of the worker.


[1]          David Martin, Benjamin V. Hanrahan, Jacki O’Neill, and Neha Gupta, ‘Being a Turker’, p. 12, 2014.

[2]          A. J. Quinn and B. B. Bederson, ‘Human computation: a survey and taxonomy of a growing field’, in Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems – CHI ’11, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2011, p. 1403.

[3]          L. C. Irani and M. S. Silberman, ‘Turkopticon: interrupting worker invisibility in amazon mechanical turk’, in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI ’13, Paris, France, 2013, p. 611.

Author: Mohaan Biswas

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