Online jobs

‘Microwork’ exploits thousands of Britons

Wednesday, June 29, 2022 3:46 p.m.

An emerging form of internet work, dubbed ‘microwork’, exploits thousands of UK workers who in many cases earn less than £4 an hour.

“Microwork” is a form of work on digital platforms in which short tasks are assigned to workers who are paid by the piece to complete them.

This can include coding data to teach algorithms, short translation tasks, surveys, tagging content and identifying images.

It offered new opportunities for workers to participate in the labor market, but proved to exacerbate inequalities in the labor market. Workers on these platforms are not considered employees under labor law and are paid below minimum wage for their work.

Easy access to these digital tools enables workers to turn time spent away from work into economically productive activity working on digital platforms.

Some workers enjoy the flexibility of microworking, but a survey by Autonomy and researchers from the University of Exeter and the London School of Economics (LSE) showed a darker side to this work.

A survey by think tank Autonomy has revealed how across three major microwork platforms – Clickworker, Prolific and Amazon Mechanical Turk – 95% of UK microworkers earn less than the minimum wage for this job.

In fact, nearly 2 in 3 micro workers earn less than £4 an hour while over half receive no pension from their work.

Nearly 30% of microworkers spent at least 30 minutes on unpaid activities for every hour of paid work on the platform.

The distinction between work and non-work continues to blur as companies develop new ways to create economic value from the activity of workers.

“Research shows this leaves workers stressed, exhausted and unable to recover from their shifts,” Autonomy said.

Not just the UK

While this type of microwork started in the United States, it has become a global phenomenon.

Today, the majority of workers access microwork platforms from countries in the Global South such as India, Kenya and Venezuela. Some estimates suggest that the number of people working on these sites worldwide could be as high as 20 million.

The first of these platforms to emerge was Amazon Mechanical Turk, which became a prototype for many platforms – such as Clickworker, Appen, and Playment – that followed.

These platforms host contractors, often large tech companies – who outsource short tasks such as image annotation – to workers often not covered by labor law.

Will Stronge, research director at Autonomy, said “thousands of microworkers are being unfairly exploited in a booming industry that has no regulation.”

He added that: “The government should name and blame companies that pay microworkers below the minimum wage. This invisible online workforce deserves better pay and workplace protections.