The Guardian’s take on microwork: Younger, educated workers are powerless | Editorial
Microwork – short digital tasks assigned to workers, who are paid by the piece through online platforms – has become an integral part of employment in the UK. Almost one in eight workers in the UK ‘earned’ the right to perform digital tasks remotely in 2021 by applying for ‘jobs’ on the web. The TUC says the proportion of the working population being paid for such digital tasks at least once a week has more than doubled since 2016. Yet almost two in three microworkers – many of whom have a degree – earn less than £4 in time. This is not only below minimum wage, but also less than a quarter of the median starting salary for graduates.
The demand for microwork has increased with the rise of artificial intelligence, which needs human intervention to nudge computers in the right direction. Large tech companies employ, often anonymously via platforms, staff who control quality and train AI. This type of employment has exploded during the pandemic. People who lost their jobs or income during the lockdown ended up finding work that only required an internet connection. Today, UK-based workers looking to supplement their incomes in an era of double-digit inflation see microworking as a necessary side hustle.
This summer, think tank Autonomy warned that these unregulated employment models are exploitative; It is perhaps unsurprising that half of the global workforce competing for these jobs is in just three developing countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Academics Phil Jones and James Muldoon found that one in five workers they surveyed depended on this form of precarious work. A typical microwork day might consist of 30 or 40 tasks for different platforms, each lasting between 30 seconds and 20 minutes.
The micro workforce is largely hidden, but Autonomy’s report suggests that in the UK it is young and well-educated, with more than 60% having at least a degree. Some workers appreciate the flexibility of microworking, but the think tank warns that many are “stressed out [and] burned” by the constant search for tasks. Hidden beneath freedom claims is the fact that the platforms exercise firm control over most aspects of how work is done and to what standard. Workers have nowhere to go if a platform refuses to pay.
Micro-workers are left defenseless because labor rights were established in a legal system designed for another age. Currently, there are three categories of employment status in the UK: employee, worker and independent contractor. Only the first category is entitled to full employment rights, including severance pay, parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal. Digital platforms — the first was Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — assume their hires are contractors. Autonomy suggests changing the law so that they are treated as workers, paid minimum wage and have paid holidays. It also advocates a universal workers’ rights agenda – including rights to childcare and disconnection.
It would be very welcome, but it requires a change of political mentality. Labor rights are perceived, wrongly, as a constraint to business efficiency. According to studies, higher union membership leads to higher productivity. For decades, policymakers have liberated employers from their responsibility to workers while making workers more dependent on employers. Feelings of helplessness have fueled working class anger over the past decade. A precariat is forming, with working conditions framed by extractive technologies. Left unchecked, this would lead to a bleak future for the world of work – and politics.