From the TUC

Crowdsourcing workers show signs of organising

10 Apr 2013, By

Crowdsourced picture of Mechanical Turk workers

Workers say why they ‘turk’ for Andy Baio’s Faces of Mechanical Turks project

Crowdsourcing is a form of working made possible by the internet. It means getting work or funding from a large group of people, usually from the online community. The basic idea is to use the skills, ideas and participation of a large group of people to help build products or content. People can work flexibly from home anywhere in the world, as long as they can deliver the goods.

While crowdsourcing has been around for a while, it’s been growing rapidly over the last few years. The size of the industry is hard to calculate, but estimates suggest that the market is worth billions of dollars now, with crowdfunding alone estimated to be worth $2.8 billion in 2012.

But there are problems. There is next to no regulation, pay can be very low, and workers have few rights or recourse when things go wrong. Some people might be making good money by working through crowdsourcing, while others face exploitation. However, there are signs that things are changing, with workers starting to organise.

One of the first crowdsourcing websites was Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT), a service that allows small menial tasks to be crowdsourced for pennies at a time. There is no obligation or consequences if the work ‘requestor’ decides not to pay up and reject the work. This can have a big impact on low paid workers. A small survey carried out by Lilly Irani at the University of California showed that 20% of the workers on AMT rely on this income to make ends meet.

To address this, a review service, Turkopticon, has been launched by Irani and her colleagues. It enables workers on AMT to rate and report the various employers, helping other workers identify and avoid the worst ‘requestors’, while supporting the better paying ones.

Other crowdsourcing platforms are taking a more ethical position. MobileWorks, which launched in 2011, was built as an alternative to AMT. Rather than having anonymous, underpaid workers with little incentive to do a great job, MobileWorks aims to pay a fair amount, with a minimum wage which reflects the cost of living of the crowdsourced worker’s country. Also, workers are not anonymous, have a better choice of tasks and are encouraged to self-organise, something MobileWorks sees both as a worker’s right and as a boost to revenue.

Another problem with crowdsourcing is that there is currently very little legal protection. One worker in the USA has an ongoing lawsuit against CrowdFlower, another crowdsourcing service, for not paying the minimum federal wage.

By its very nature, decentralised and informal, crowdsourcing represents a huge problem for workers wanting to organise. Some unions may be well positioned to help crowdsourced workers in the future. Organisations like the NUJ, Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain are already geared up to support freelance work, providing advice on subjects like copyright and legal rights for self-employed workers. With crowdsourcing looking set to continuing to grow, moving towards professional and higher value work, it’s important that online workers seize the opportunity to organise.

GUEST POST: Simon Parry is a project management, information architecture and technology consultant at infobo.com, with former experience working in communications and IT in the union movement. He writes for the industry press, and is the technology columnist for Labour Research magazine.

One Response to Crowdsourcing workers show signs of organising

  1. Mark MacKay
    Apr 15th 2013, 4:38 pm

    I’m currently enrolled in a class studying the business of digital publishing. I’m surrounded by startup and crowdsourcing advocates who appear comfortable glossing over some of the negative aspects of the practice. Can you refer me to any analyses of crowdsourcing – comparative, critical, unbiased? The practice has been so enthusiastically adopted it’s almost impossible to request a pause for discussion. Suggestions that crowdsourcing might have deleterious on work and workers usually results in gasps. Question it’s ethics you’re considered a Luddite. I’m an older worker and I remember actually getting paid more before crowdsourcing. It seems we’re also developing a collective amnesia about fair pay.