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Mechanical Turk: Amazon's New Underclass

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If there are any champions of workers' rights who are still cheering after the UK's Court of Appeal decision on the Poundland work-for-free case, they need to meet Mechanical Turk.

Mechanical Turk is a fine example of the trend towards a 'precariat': a growing body of insecure workers, so termed by academics because they are always teetering on the edge of survival. It's a trend that threatens to create a Grapes of Wrath generation, snapping at each others' heels like the protagonists of John Steinbeck's Depression-era masterpiece to out-compete their peers for scraps of ad-hoc labor.

This time, though, the Grapes of Wrath economy wears a familiar face, one most of us trust and do business with. Amazon, purveyors of just about everything to just about everyone, also manage a global labor market where anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can offer their services for a wide range of jobs, most paying well below the minimum wage.

Mechanical Turk hasn't had a lot of publicity, but it has excited technology-watchers who like the idea that crowd-sourcing can become crowd-working: Instead of hiring employees or negotiating tiresome freelance contracts, anyone who wants a job done that can be done on a computer can simply go to the market and instantly pick from a host of willing or desperate workers.

Here's the deal. When a job is posted -- transcribing an audio recording, for example -- the recruiter names their price and how quickly they want the work done. This is known as a hit -- a 'human intelligence task.' Doing a job is known, with barely a hint of irony, as taking a hit. Since the work is casual and on-demand, even the best and most recommended workers, known as 'masters', have no security, no employment contracts, no holidays, no sick pay, no payment for equipment -- nothing but the payment of a few dollars or cents into their Amazon account.

If you're new to Mechanical Turk and need the money, you're unlikely to be able to pick and choose. You have to prove yourself to get better jobs, and you only get paid at all if your hirer, or 'requester', is happy with the work you've done. There's no appeal if you think you've been exploited or scammed.

Some of the work on offer is respectable enough, like taking part in surveys for academic research or correcting someone's English. A lot of it is related to making material more visible on the internet by tagging and categorizing it. So Mechanical Turk is big on porn: There's money to be made, though not much, by making adult images, whatever their origin, even easier to find than they are already. Amazon doesn't appear to have a problem with facilitating this.

A lot of the work on offer is mundane -- copying text from business cards features strongly -- but all of it is characterized by rates of pay that are usually well below the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. For writing a 'unique 150-word article about self-building your own home', for example, you'll earn 50 cents, so you'd need to clock 15-an-hour to compete with the average shelf-stacker. Effectively, the system allows any hirer to live the free market dream, bypassing all labor regulation and achieving a complete separation between the commissioning of work and the welfare of the worker.

Amazon does well out of this, though it's hard to know exactly how well. It takes a cut on every transaction, naturally. Turk-watcher Panos Ipeirotis, associate professor at New York University's Leonard N. Stern business school, calculates that between $10 million and $150 million of transactions go through Mechanical Turk each year, with Amazon taking between 10 and 20 percent. It's also great for cash flow, as the money paid by hirers sits in workers' Amazon accounts until it's spent, unless the worker has specified direct payment into a bank account.

Amazon tends to be relaxed about checking hirers' credentials. It was not until Lilly Irani, a technology specialist at the University of California, produced a browser plugin called Turkopticon that workers had a reliable way of checking the reputation of hirers. Far from the market regulating itself, it was down to an independent academic and groups of workers sharing their experiences to bring some order to it.

Mechanical Turk is a tiny niche of the global labor market, but it's a niche worth watching as it's being used by some big players, including the U.S. Army Research Lab. And Amazon is well worth watching, as a corporation that aspires to be the world's number one intermediary between buyers and sellers.

Amazon's third-party 'marketplace' sellers already exist under a form of feudalism, where their access to market can be granted or withdrawn at Amazon's directive, their customer lists are not their own and their reputation is mediated through Amazon's own rating system. Mechanical Turk has the potential to enable Amazon to dominate the supply of many services as well as goods.

Of course nobody has to use Mechanical Turk. But as welfare systems around the world become more draconian, some will prefer it to the humiliation of being hounded by officials and stigmatized as shirkers.

One of the marvels of the last couple of years in the UK is that unemployment has stayed relatively low despite the dire performance of the economy. Examine the rapid increase in poverty among those who are working, the lengthening queues at food banks, the fact that geology graduates are being asked to work unpaid in Poundland and the emergence of models like Mechanical Turk, and the real marvel is that people manage to keep going.