You can’t spend much time around the tech world without getting a little tired of hearing the word “disrupt.” Every new company is planning to disrupt a new industry. The successful tales are everywhere: Craigslist disrupted classified advertising. Napster disrupted record labels. Expedia and their competitors disrupted travel agencies. Blogs disrupted newspapers. Amazon disrupted book retailers. And publishers. And brick and mortar retailers.
In fact, Amazon is probably the mother of all disruptive tech companies.
So it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Amazon is a major player in a movement that could disrupt the entire labor marketplace. That’s the topic of my latest article for The Nation.
Here’s the tl;dr version.
In 2005, Amazon created a marketplace called Mechanical Turk. Employers go there to post tasks–mostly small, mundane, repetitive tasks that machines aren’t very good at. For example, a posting might consist of 1000 photos of couches and sofas, with instructions that each photo be labeled “couch” or “sofa.” An employer might offer a few pennies for each tagged photo.
Employees (who are known as Turkers) can then choose which tasks they would like to complete. In principle, then, Mechanical Turk is simply a marketplace in which employers and employees can contract (or not) as they see fit.
But as any journalist can tell you, when industries get disrupted, a lot of people working in those industries suffer. When the thing you’re disrupting is the labor market itself, we should all pay a bit of attention.
For starters, the Mechanical Turk marketplace is pretty strongly tilted in favor of employers. For example, employers can reject Turkers’ work product—and thus refuse to pay—for any number of reasons. But rejected work still belongs to the employer. That combination of rules strongly incentivizes scamming. Rather unsurprisingly, almost all of the Turkers I talked to had been scammed at least once.
Indeed, in the virtual world, the disparities of power in employment relationships are magnified many times over. The crowdworking marketplace is home to an overabundance of labor which leads to extreme competition between workers. The work is monotonous, repetitive, and largely unrewarding. The pay is extremely low; the effective pay rate of most Turkers is only a dollar or two an hour.
The whole thing is a bit of a libertarian paradise—a completely unregulated market in which New Deal labor reforms never happened.
It’s a little hard to say just how many people are affected. Estimates of the number of crowdworkers in America range from several hundred thousand to several million.
But some are starting to stand up for their rights. A recent lawsuit by a group of crowdworkers seeks to get classification as employees and thus gain the rights and protections common to other workers. Think minimum wage, workers’ compensation for injuries, protections from discrimination, etc.
Miriam Cherry, a law professor at St. Louis University and one of the few attorneys working on labor law and crowdworking, argues that it’s incumbent upon the courts to explicitly define rules and regulations as they apply to markets like Mechanical Turk. Writes Cherry:
“This is the wild west. It’s like many of these startup companies just decided, ‘Well, this is technology, so nothing that ever came before us in terms of labor regulations has any meaning.’ That can’t be right. It’s still labor. These are still people with economic needs. There are still reasons we have these laws. And just the fact that you have some technology doesn’t really change that.”
Or the shorter version: there are limits to how disruptive Amazon is allowed to be.
Read more about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk at The Nation, which came out from behind the paywall today.