Click Work - It's ComplicatedFayrouz Eldebani
So-called artificial intelligence – learning algorithmic systems that make autonomous decisions based on data – has become embedded in our everyday lives. Whether you are on social media, use online payment apps, maps and navigation apps, audio to text transcription, autocorrect and the list goes on – you have most definitely, intentionally or unintentionally, relied on an algorithmic decision-making. What most do not realise, however, is that behind these seemingly automated and intelligent machines, are the ‘invisible’ click workers. Click workers are essential for the success of many of these systems.
They train the algorithms where they are still lacking, feed them with data and help them recognise and categorise things they still do not know. Their tasks include labelling and categorising data, recording short sentences, moderating content, transcribing audio among other things. Typically mundane, but extremely necessary.
It has been proven that the working conditions around click work are far from fair and the way it is designed benefits big companies, such as Facebook, OpenAI and Google and the micro-tasking platforms, which connect these companies to the individual click workers, such as Clickworker, Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) and Sama, but rarely the workers themselves. Click workers are not provided any official employment arrangement, they are usually self-employed, have no contracts and hence, are not provided any benefits, no sick pay, no annual leave, no health insurance, no pension and no commitment to even pay the minimum wage of the country they reside in and are paid on a piecework basis.
Tasks can be as short as a minute and the remuneration as little as just a few cents. Workers are often paid based on output and not on amount of time they spend on a task, which means that in order for click work to make sense, most workers need to acquire as many tasks as possible. If output is not approved, workers do not get remunerated for the time they spent on a task. All these conditions lead to overwork, anxiety and depression, social isolation and also sleep deprivation. These platforms have become infamous for their unfair and intransparent remuneration and the exploitation of click workers, especially those in global majority countries.
Furthermore, click workers, especially content moderators, are constantly exposed to horrifying content, which they need to filter out, leaving them with psychological trauma and with insufficient therapeutic support from their employers.
Additionally, click work hardly provides any opportunities for substantial professional development (through trainings and/or social networking) which means that it hardly contributes to finding a more stable job.
Click work as an opportunity
Despite these well-known conditions, click work has been attracting more and more people for various reasons, the most important being the flexibility it provides. This is why click work can be especially appealing to a lot of women as well as to people with disabilities. Click work does not require one to leave their home and therefore a lot of women with care and household responsibilities are increasingly joining micro-tasking platforms. The same goes for people with disabilities who would otherwise need to rely on adequate infrastructure (which is usually missing in global majority countries) to be able to get to work or are completely unable to leave their homes.
Additionally, these platforms can be seen as a great opportunity for better inclusion of vulnerable and marginalised groups – who usually have a hard time finding a job – as anyone can join these platforms where discrimination based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, age, disability, education level, criminal record and/or immigration status among others is minimised or even non-existent. In other words, these platforms act as a gateway to the digital labour market where access to the traditional labour market is not possible or difficult by removing barriers and inflexible working hours. This kind of work is also a great chance for precarious workers and highly educated but underemployed people, especially in global majority countries.
Click work can, therefore, be regarded as an emancipation and empowering tool for many groups of people who would otherwise need to rely on others’ financial support to cover their basic needs.
Many women, in particular, can feel a sense of accomplishment through click work as it is something different from their perceived household responsibilities which at the same time does not need to interfere with their perceived domestic duties. Furthermore, women in patriarchal societies who were not allowed to work before due to gender roles restricting them to domestic duties and staying at home, are provided with an opportunity to enter the labour market through click work. The financial gain therefrom can lead to increased autonomy and agency.
Same job, different experience
Despite the usually non-discriminatory access to click work, different groups of people experience it differently and an interplay of various factors on an individual level can have different effects on click workers. This is why it is absolutely necessary to view the experience of click work from an intersectional feminist and decolonial perspective.
Click work in Global Minority vs. Global Majority Countries
Click work is a global phenomenon. Both people from global minority as well as global majority countries are increasingly looking for click work for financial gain. In fact, most of AMT click workers reside in the USA, with India being the second largest provider of click workers for AMT. Theoretically, access to these platforms is unbiased and open for all. However, even on these platforms existing geographical inequalities are reproduced and even exploited.
There exists a huge wage gap between global majority and global minority countries in which renumeration is clearly much lower in global majority countries. The lack of worker protection laws which also require a universal minimal wage is usually exploited and is one of the main reasons for the outsourcing of these tasks. What’s more, higher paying tasks are usually reserved for click workers from global minority countries with the argument that they possess higher qualifications, even though many click workers from global majority countries are overqualified for these tasks. At the same time, lower paying tasks are specifically targeted to workers from global majority countries, as they are willing to work for much less.
Workers from global majority countries are driven to compete against one another in terms of who can work more for less. Click work platforms make use of this race to the bottom knowing that there are no local legal measures that would hinder this phenomenon by enforcing a universal minimum wage.
Postcolonial structures allow for this kind of exploitation. Moreover, click workers are constantly monitored by AI rating systems and their work tracked, giving way for the platforms to be able to constantly observe the click workers’ work processes and granting them access to massive data.
The exploitation by Big Tech companies of cheap labour with unfair working conditions in global majority countries is a reflection of digital (neo-)colonialism.
Women in Click Work
Although in global terms, the click work labour market is predominantly male, women are increasingly joining click work platforms for the above-mentioned reasons. The ratio of men and women working in click work differs depending on the country or region. For instance, while 55% of AMT workers are women in the USA, only 18% of AMT workers are women in India. The numbers may not be the same in every study, but the general direction is the same, currently more men are involved in click work than women. One thing is clear though: women and men have different reasons for doing click work and click work is experienced differently by men and women.
Men are much more likely to have a regular full-time job than women before taking on click work. Female click workers, on the other hand, are more likely to either have an unconventional work arrangement such as self-employment, part-time jobs, retirement or even unemployment. More women than men are relying on click work as their primary or only source of income. For most men, click work is a way to increase their income, but they do not rely on it entirely. Female click workers, even overqualified ones, are thus more inclined to accept the precarious work conditions of click work as they are dependent on it and might not find another job.
The fact that the motivating factors between men and women are unalike can be directly attributed to the patriarchal structure of society. Female click workers are more confined by gender roles than men. In fact, click work is for many women and the men in their families even preferable because of their gendered responsibilities. First of all, the difficulty that women in particular face in entering the traditional labour market is one of the main reasons for many women to seek other types of work such as click work. Secondly, as mentioned above, women’s often prescribed household duties stemming from gender roles confine them to the space of their homes and restrict them from entering the traditional labour market. Click work provides a great opportunity for these women to be granted permission/approval by their families to work as they would still stay at home and ‘fulfil their duties as women, wives and mothers’. Some women even leave their day jobs to become click workers as it aligns more with what is expected of them while others might need to hide their involvement in click work from their families where it is not accepted for a woman to work.
Because women are seen first and foremost as caregivers, women with children must reconcile between click work and taking care of their children and the household. Many women work on their click work tasks while or even after doing their unpaid care work. Most women work at night for longer periods or during the day for shorter periods and thereby also shorter tasks. Many studies have found a global gender pay gap in click work which can be traced back to the fact that women are constantly interrupted by their unpaid care work and ‘domestic responsibilities’ and can therefore only take on shorter and less paying tasks, but that women work the same number of hours as men. Most men on the other hand, work uninterruptedly at night or in the evenings after their day job has ended without having to go through a cycle of unpaid and paid work. Even though most jobs to click workers from global majority countries are posted in the night (they are mostly posted from global minority countries during the work day), women are still unable to take on these tasks during the day because of their care responsibilities. In most cases, women who take on click work cannot afford child care services and in countries with inadequate child care facilities, they have no other choice but to juggle between click and care work.
The overwork and the fact that their care work is neither compensated for nor is it particularly appreciated as it is a given, can have a toll on the mental and physical health of women. The aspect of (personal) flexibility which appeals to a lot of women is in reality reduced as their burden is doubled. We should question whether that flexibility actually impedes the freedom of women by reinforcing patriarchal control over where, how and to which extent women work as well as cementing existing gender roles. Furthermore, because click workers are paid by piece, they need to always be online/available to earn a decent amount of money.
Another important consequence of click work on women, is social isolation and alienation. Because they are staying at home all of the time, their participation as part of society diminishes and they become invisible. The return of many women to the confines of the home from their traditional jobs as well as the social isolation that comes with click work heightens the risk of the occurrence domestic violence and the lack of community support and recognition, which has been proven to have risen during Covid-19. Also, women who do click work behind the backs of their families are also subject to increased domestic violence.
While the circumstances around click work affect women in general more than men, as shown above, women from global majority countries are more affected than women from global minority countries. The lack of adequate social security systems and good childcare facilities in many global majority countries puts an extra burden on working women in global majority countries. Furthermore, gender norms are usually more prevalent in global majority countries which is why more women/their families in global majority countries prefer to work from home.
Lack of unionisation and regulation
Despite the aforementioned unfair conditions around click work, unionisation is very difficult due to the geographic scattering and the isolation of click workers. The level of unionisation is quite low for click work platforms (5%). Workers, thus, face challenges in demanding for better conditions and for their rights and since their employers are not bound by any contracts, there are no guarantees that their demands would be met.
The home is an under regulated place, but is becoming more and more a place of work and in the case of many click workers, the only place of work. Policy makers need to recognise this fact and to acknowledge and tackle the gendered issues around click work. But because many click workers have become invisible and because they are unable to unionise, it is hard for their working conditions to be seen and heard by regulators. Thereby, regulators face the obstacle of identifying their target group as click workers are an invisible work force and national statistics on them are missing.
In order to protect click workers, click work platforms need to be forced to adhere to international and national labour laws and held accountable in the case of non-compliance. National labour laws must be extended to digital labour platforms. To tackle the additional burdens that women face, governments, especially in global majority countries, need to invest in sound care infrastructure and provide better social security. More visibility, accountability and representation can go a long way in the fight for the rights of click workers.
While click work can be an empowering tool for many women and marginalised groups who otherwise have limited access to the traditional labour market, as it increases confidence, agency, independence and self-reliance, it has the potential to reproduce structural inequalities and undo years of progress. Although overall working conditions associated with click work are notoriously exploitative, women’s experience as click workers is far different than that of men due to existing patriarchal structural norms and gender roles.
It limits the mobility of women and vulnerable groups, thereby leading to further alienation from society. Moreover, the experience of women in global majority countries is exacerbated by the lack of social security systems and childcare infrastructure as well as by stronger structural and societal inequalities. The invisibility of click workers due to social isolation and lack of unionisation act as obstacles for regulators.
By paying enough attention to click workers, the platforms that employ them and their adherence to international and national labour laws as well as the provision of strong welfare systems can be the cornerstones to ensuring a beneficial environment for click workers.