In a small, modern office building in midtown Toronto, it’s the start of the workday for Tessa.* She sits at her desk and gets her computer started, but she doesn’t feel like diving into today’s workload just yet. Instead, she checks her email, scans a few news sites, and opens mturk.com, (or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, for the unitiated).
She scrolls through the job postings and sees one titled “have a knowledgeable conversation with a chat partner.” The directions are vague (it’s all in the title) – just talk to a chat bot about anything for 30 minutes. It pays $1.
Tessa scrolls past it, but in Surrey, B.C., Mitchell* decides to take the job. “It sounds definitely like natural language processing,” he tells me.
“Honestly, it sounds kind of sad, but anything above $1 is already pretty good for that website. There’s a lot of days where there’s nothing, or, you know, they pay less than 5 cents.”
Sharon* is in her kitchen in Narcisse, MB, waiting for the coffee to brew when she comes across the same post. “They want you to kind of, like, test their chat bots,” she explains, “and see, can they keep up?”
MTurk is a “crowdsourcing marketplace” where tech companies can access “a global, on-demand, 24x7 workforce” at “significantly lower costs” by taking advantage of the platform’s “pay-per-task model.” Thousands of workers around the world have been recruited into this growing gig economy, as the Globe and Mail and the Washington Post have reported. Workers in places like Kenya and the Philippines are helping to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology by classifying images, transcribing audio, or analyzing video content in what the Washington Post calls “digital sweatshops” – and Canadians are doing this work too.
I spoke with dozens of Canadians who say that low wages, inflation, and limited pension and disability supports have driven them to look for work on MTurk, even if it pays pennies.
A penny per HIT
Mitchell says that $1 is considered good pay on MTurk, as “most Requesters give 1 cent.” Requesters is what Amazon calls the people who post job offers on the platform; jobs are called HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks).
Tessa agrees. “Honestly, it sounds kind of sad, but anything above $1 is already pretty good for that website. There’s a lot of days where there’s nothing, or, you know, they pay less than 5 cents.”
Mitchell is willing to accept penny HITs if they are quick, repetitive, and high volume, what some workers call batch work. When he was new to the platform, his goal was to make 1 cent per minute, “but now it’s at least $1.20 an hour, 2 cents per minute,” he notes. Tessa aims to make closer to $2 an hour. “If it’s $1 or above I would be willing to spend maybe like half an hour on it.”
Low wages, inflation, and limited pension and disability supports have driven people to look for work on MTurk, even if it pays pennies.
Two dollars an hour is the median pay for MTurk workers, according to researchers. But Sharon, like most of the people I interview, struggles to calculate exactly how much she makes per hour because the jobs can last as little as a few seconds.
The promise of an endless supply of low-barrier, flexible work is a big part of the appeal of MTurk for Sharon. But this by-the-minute flexibility makes it difficult for her to calculate a precise hourly wage, not to mention the time she spends looking for work and trying to understand the instructions before she does the job. Some job posts include a time estimate, sometimes right in the title, but Sharon says that these estimates can be misleading and the only way to find out how long a job really takes is trial and error.
“Like, I did one one time for $7 and I think it almost killed me – like, it was bad,” she recalls. The job was transcribing a short and very low-quality audio file of what Sharon guesses was a U.S. court hearing. “I was like, why would you guys pay somebody to do this on here? And then I went reading about one of these transcription companies, and first it goes through a computer, then it goes through people, and then if their people couldn’t do it then it would be stuck on Amazon Turk. So you do really get the crappy ones.” Sharon had to play the recording so many times she lost track. “Put it this way, you worked for your $7.”
Much of what we call artificial intelligence (AI) consists of technologies that use machine learning algorithms to mimic human cognition, but these algorithms are only capable of projecting human-like responses because they’ve been trained on pre-sorted, pre-labelled data. To get AI-like technologies such as self-driving cars and ChatGPT, humans have to minutely label and categorize immense volumes of images, videos, and text. That’s where crowdsourcing platforms like Amazon’s MTurk come in, where companies can rely on the “crowd” to train and test their algorithms. Jeff Bezos calls these workers “artificial artificial intelligence.”
Research suggests large corporations account for the biggest share of jobs posted to the platform, but as Mitchell explains, “most Requesters don’t reveal their true names.” Workers and employers on MTurk have alphanumeric codes that act as anonymizing IDs, making this work a completely anonymous exchange. Workers I talk to suspect they’ve done content moderation for Facebook, search engine optimization for Google, and voice recording for Amazon’s Alexa, but they can’t be sure because companies tend to operate through intermediaries who post work to the platform and manage the workforce on employers’ behalf – a service you can get directly through Amazon Web Services for the right price.
Part of the value of the tech industry is tied up in the promise of automation – in other words, the possibility of an investment free of labour costs. In this “paradox of automation’s last mile” as researchers Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri call it, MTurk workers are a rather inconvenient vestige, meant to be phased out and better kept hidden. “Mechanical Turk” is thus aptly named after the eighteenth-century automaton chess machine that dazzled audiences all over Europe but which turned out to be run by a hidden human chessmaster. Chasing the money of AI, without having quite reached entirely automatic automation, companies turn to MTurk.
Two dollars an hour is the median pay for MTurk workers. But most of the people I interview struggle to calculate exactly how much she makes per hour because the jobs can last as little as a few seconds.
In 2017, Expensify, which was supposed to automate filing expenses, was found posting customers’ sensitive data to MTurk. Workers I spoke to say they see plenty of receipt transcription jobs available on the platform with the identifiable information now hidden. Workers also say that Grindr posted content moderation work to MTurk and left their watermark on users’ sensitive photos.
Tessa hasn’t been able to recognize any companies by name, but she suspects the major dating apps are still using MTurk. “I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of tasks that involve rating, like, dating profile photos. The title was ‘Rate this Profile Picture.’ They would give me photos of people’s faces and they would tell me, ‘how good looking is this person?’ That kind of thing. I don’t know what their purpose was, but I did it anyway ’cause it didn’t take a long time.”
While Tessa doesn’t really care to know what she is working on, Sharon prefers the jobs where she can recognize the technology she is helping to develop. Sharon suspects that one of her favourite jobs is part of the development of AI airport baggage scanners. “I haven’t seen one of these tasks for a while now, but I was doing ones for X-rays on suitcases going through the airports. That was cool, and apparently I was really good at it. You had to decipher what [was in the bags].”
Tessa puts in about half an hour a day looking for work and completing HITs on MTurk, and for this time she makes “maybe 15 to 20 bucks a month.”
In late 2020, there was a job post that asked workers to take pictures of various household items placed on the ground. It paid well for the platform, somewhere between $1.50 and $2 per photo. Mitchell’s background in electrical engineering and satellite imaging gave him an edge and he immediately recognized what technology the job was developing.
“Because of my background I know that robot vacuums do line detection, so I took pictures from the ground point of view of things, especially of things that could be difficult to discern between. For example, one of the things they asked us to take pictures of was plastic bags on the ground. So, I did it in a bedroom where the curtain has a pattern that kind of looked like a crumpled plastic bag and I think that helped because at the end of all these HITs they gave me an $8 bonus for it without explanation.” While he develops robot vacuums, he says he could never afford one himself.
Making connections in the crowd
The MTurk platform does not offer workers much guidance and it hides work for which they don’t yet qualify, leaving them with only the lowest-paying jobs. “The first time I got a dollar-a-HIT thing come up on my feed, I was like wow, never heard of this, didn’t even know it could happen, right?” Sharon remembers. “And then now it’s pretty regular that there’s dollar-a-HIT stuff. So that’s why I think it has something to do with the more HITs you do. They just don’t like to tell you the secrets, I guess.”
Workers have developed their own networks using sites like Reddit (r/MTurk) and purpose-built sites like TurkerView and Turkopticon to share advice, offer each other support tools such as scripts and extensions, and warn each other about bad HITs and deceitful Requesters.
Some of the inconveniences of work on the platform are technical, where a worker spends time reading the instructions and accepts the job only to find the link to the work is broken and they’ve wasted their time. Other times it can be a matter of communication, where the instructions are too long to read or too difficult to understand. What workers fear most, however, are unfair rejections. After submitting work, Requesters can choose to accept and pay for the task or reject the task and refuse payment but keep the work.
Workers and employers on MTurk have alphanumeric codes that act as anonymizing IDs, making this work a completely anonymous exchange.
More than wage theft, many workers fear the impact a rejection has on their ability to secure more work on the platform. “The thing that I look for most in a task is that I can have a good chance of not failing the task,” Mitchell says. “Because doing it could cause my success rate to fall below 99 per cent and many HITs require the success rate of 99 per cent. So now I’ve been almost paranoid about that.”
Amazon allows Requesters to set qualifications for their jobs, such as a minimum number of HITs completed, or a minimum acceptance rate. The platform’s default setting is 99 per cent, meaning for workers to be able to access the lion’s share of jobs on the platform they can only afford to face one rejection for every 100 jobs they complete.
“I really work hard to not have things rejected,” Sharon shares. “It takes you a lot of ‘accepteds’ to get your rejected rate back down. I’ve had the odd Requester that once or twice I had something refused and I was like ‘why?’ I call foul on this one. And it wasn’t even so much the getting paid for it, it was ‘I do not want this rate dropping,’ right? And so now I’m just a lot more careful which ones I take.”
Research suggests large corporations account for the biggest share of jobs posted to MTurk. Workers suspect they’ve done content moderation for Facebook, search engine optimization for Google, and voice recording for Amazon’s Alexa.
Mitchell is in the minority of workers who consult worker-run websites regularly for support; only 30 per cent of the 300 workers I surveyed in Canada consult or engage in these forums. Tessa first found out about MTurk on Reddit, but she hasn’t returned to the site much since then. Sharon might find herself on MTurk blogs when she gets really stuck and Googles for help, but neither Tessa nor Sharon seem to know about Turkopticon or TurkerView.
“I wouldn’t mind, you know, meeting other people,” Sharon shares. “If they had a forum or something like that that made it that you could, you know, share any tricks of the trade or whatever, but I’ve never seen anything.”
Tessa says she doesn’t engage in the forums because she doesn’t take this work that seriously. “It’s only if you’re really bored and you don’t have anything to do, like, for example, for me I do it at work during my downtime.”
Just a hobby?
The MTurk website says the platform is meant to “make money in your spare time,” but for most of the workers I talk to and survey in Canada, MTurk is not just a hobby. Stagnating wages, inflation, the housing crisis, lack of affordable childcare, high tuition rates, and meagre disability support are just some of the reasons these Canadians are struggling to make ends meet and find themselves searching the internet for a side hustle.
“Before I retired, I was looking for possible sources of income for after I retired, and I read some misleading articles about how much MTurk workers make,” Mitchell says. He wasn’t planning on retiring in 2020; he’s only 57 now. He has a wife and two kids in university who depend on him. But Mitchell got sick and his doctors decided the best thing for him to do was take early retirement.
“Even though I say I’m retired, I’m not, I don’t receive a pension, so it’s officially ‘unemployed,’” he clarifies. “I’m still many years away from getting a pension, and I see MTurk as a way to get extra income.”
“It’s better than nothing. Between zero or $100 a month I would gladly take $100 a month even if it means working for $1 an hour.”
The pay turned out to be much lower than he expected, the availability of the work is inconsistent, and the competition for jobs is fierce. In a typical month, he scrapes together about $100. “MTurk this year helped pay for my daughter’s orthotics for her feet, because she works in retail and has to stand all day and it really hurts her feet and legs,” he says. “It’s better than nothing. Between zero or $100 a month I would gladly take $100 a month even if it means working for $1 an hour.”
Sharon’s goal now is to make $1 a day, but it’s not what she had hoped for when she first discovered MTurk. Sharon is 58, a small-scale farmer, and a stay-at-home mom. “My husband got sick, really sick, about six or seven years ago,” Sharon explains, “and they told us he won’t go back to work. And we’ve had multitudes of farming issues, so the farming income seriously dropped.” She began working on MTurk to try to make up the difference in her family’s income, “because it’s easy, right? The blogs make it sound so quick and easy. It is not quick and easy.”
A few years into working on MTurk, Sharon is satisfied if she makes enough in the month to cover the $40 internet bill. “I would like to see these things that these bloggers are talking about, where, you know, they managed to move this into a $2,000-a-month thing.”
MTurk is “not worth the time, and it’s not well paying, so I don’t really recommend it to anyone.”
Tessa is in her early thirties and tends to do HITs while she’s at her full-time government job. “I would say [my government job is] a decent job and it’s decent paying. I think I belong to the, like, middle-income class. But whether I can make ends meet? I can’t really say, because the cost of living here is pretty high, so I wouldn’t say that my job would be able to afford, you know, housing. Like, I’m still living with my parents right now.”
Tessa puts in about half an hour a day looking for work and completing HITs on MTurk, and for this time she makes “maybe 15 to 20 bucks a month.” She knows this money won’t make the difference to enable her to afford her own place, “but even if I don’t think it’s possible, I am still working toward it.”
Tessa, like Sharon and Mitchell, thinks the website is ultimately a sham. “It’s not fun, it’s not worth the time, and it’s not well paying, so I don’t really recommend it to anyone.”
*This article draws on privacy protected interviews and survey data from the author’s SSHRC-funded doctoral research project. As a result, names have been replaced with pseudonyms.
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