January 12, 2009

Internet Jobs Are The New Digital Sweatshops

The internet is boasting more and more jobs that allow people to work using their home computers. The only drawback, however, is the salary: as little as one U.S. cent per hour.

Businesses are now turning away from globalization to employ westerners in so-called virtual sweatshops, performing menial and repetitive tasks for super-low wages.

Since many digital tasks require some form of human input and can't be completed by computers alone, companies are farming out tedious chores via the web to the reservoir of global digital workers growing by the week.

Most of the jobs consist of anything from skilled translation services to repetitive data inputting and image identifying.

Companies often employ virtual workers to log onto their websites repeatedly and leave complimentary comments in an effort to create an illusion of popularity and inflate advertising rates.

Such jobs have even spread to the gaming world, where computer gamers can clock up bonus points that can then be sold (for real money) to rich gamers. There are even people who advertise jobs for "friending" them on Facebook "” they are actually buying friends to make their profile look more impressive.

Amazon now operates a site called Mechanical Turk, which is leading the way in harnessing the army of digital laborers. Internet surfers can log on to the site and browse the tens of thousands of jobs on offer from hundreds of companies. The jobs are termed "human intelligence tasks", or Hits.

The employer pays Amazon 10% of the fee for any job completed, Amazon came across the idea after using a similar system to catalogue its vast archive of books three years ago. Once it offered the service, it was inundated by companies wanting to make use of cheap, flexible labor available 24 hours a day.

Sharon Chiarella, vice-president of Amazon Mechanical Turk, said what is so fascinating about the service are the advances in technology that allow people to have that type of flexibility.

"We see workers who use Mechanical Turk as their full-time job and they work from home and are there when the kids get home from work, or they are retired. We do think that this is a great way to leverage the technology to really revolutionize the way that work is done."

The site claims that workers can earn money at their convenience, while businesses can access a global, on-demand workforce. In economic terms, the globalization of the labor market is simply the flipside to the availability of cheap consumer goods from overseas.

Workers are paid as contractors rather than employees, so employers don't need to worry about overtime or paying a minimum wage.

However, it seems as if a day's work at the new digital coal mine face offered thin rewards. One employer supplied the names of wineries and wanted to know the names of all wines they produced.

After trying four of the companies on the list, two of the web addresses were invalid, and the other two required much digging around to find a comprehensive list of products. With two out of four Hits completed, 20 minutes' work will pay a grand total of four cents (21⁓ž2p).

But another job that required looking at digital images of the front pages of annual reports and transcribing their titles into separate files proved a little more fruitful. But Amazon's software failed to display both the document and the text input box in a single window.

It turns out, experienced Turkers download specialized software to avoid such problems, and automate as much of the process as possible. Such a task, in this case, will pocket you around 40 cents for about half an hour's work.

Interesting enough, you are only paid in cash in the United States or India. In other countries, you have to accept credit in an Amazon account that you can redeem only for Amazon products. However, that's expected to change as the network gathers pace across the globe.

The flexible workforce connected via the Internet is an idea that has been slow to get off the ground. Many of the comments on the site's message board were from American workers complaining about the low rates of pay.

Mechanical Turk could spark interesting changes in the global workforce, making workers across the globe begin to compete against one another. While this may be good for companies, which can take advantage of the huge discrepancies in living costs and exchange rates, it's not so good for the humble digital worker.

As the global financial crisis skyrockets unemployment rates, people hoping to join the ranks of digital workers in the brave new world of Internet labor are to be reminded that there is no such thing as a cushy job in cyberspace.


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