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Clickwork and labour exploitation in the digital economy

Often ignored or assumed to be work conducted by machines rather than people, Computer Weekly explores the hidden human impact of the ‘clickwork’ that underpins the global digital economy

Every day for almost two years, Josh Sklar would get up, go to the office and spend the day sifting through child pornography, animal mutilations and hate speech. Working as a content moderator for Facebook was by no means a dream job, but at the time in 2019, an $18-an-hour office job seemed appealing.

Despite the “armour” that naturally develops in a job like that, Sklar says some videos would still manage to slip through. He tells about the day he trained for the child endangerment team – moderators who specialise in policing the child pornographic content on Facebook – and watching example videos of the kind of content they should expect to see in the role. “Just seeing the confusion in this little kid’s eyes – it was a really upsetting thing,” he says. “It was one of those moments when you feel something shift in your understanding.”

The mental health support from Facebook – or, more accurately, outsourced employer Accenture – was close to non-existent, says Sklar. Staff would have mandatory sessions with wellness coaches – who at times were just professional “life coaches” rather than trained therapists – when they were offered meditation tips, or told to imagine coloured shapes to try to solve the impact of the extreme content they were seeing each day.

“What becomes most taxing about it is just the combination of monotony and grossness – that’s actually part of what’s upsetting about it,” he says. “You know, if you start to not let things get to you, you start to feel like a very different person. You’ve got this armour where you’re just monotonously upset all the time.”

Content moderators like Sklar are perhaps one of the most extreme cases of the problems facing clickworkers – essentially, the people handling the extensive yet basic labour-intensive work that underpins the modern tech economy. The term is broad – it can just as easily refer to temp employees at Amazon asked to manually trawl through every frame of video on a quest to train its doomed drone delivery programme as it can be the multitude of people, often in the Third World, who fill out surveys or answer questions for companies en masse.

Frequently, it is defined by low wages, long hours, poor conditions and a complete separation from other workers. Often ignored or assumed to be work conducted by machines rather than people, this new “digital factory line” is increasingly becoming the face of modern labour exploitation.

“You do find some of these horror stories of, you know, refugees living in slums, packed into these shanty towns where everyone is on a computer doing this kind of online task work,” says James Muldoon, head of digital research at the Autonomy think-tank.

Scaling clickwork

Muldoon recently authored a report into microwork, a specific form of clickwork that sees tens or even hundreds of thousands of people worldwide work on extremely specific tasks, such as answering surveys.

It found that in the UK alone (which has a relatively small microwork workforce), 95% earn below minimum wage for this work, almost two in three microworkers earn less than £4 an hour, and one in five microworkers has no other paid work. In the UK at least, many of those people will be doing microwork to supplement their income – in stark contrast to less economically developed countries, where it is often someone’s only job. 

“There are people in certain developing countries who are basically full-time online task performers,” says Muldoon. “Our research showed that you are talking about a salary of sometimes less than £6,000 a year. I don’t think the violation is any less egregious [in the UK] just because it’s often supplemental income. Exploiting someone’s labour is bad, regardless of how much you do it.”

While microwork might be at the most extreme end of the spectrum, these invisible industries span the length and breadth of the economy. Although the figures are far from certain, the gig economy workforce – of which clickwork makes up a solid part – has almost tripled in size to 4.4 million since 2016, according to research by the TUC.

“It has all grown very quickly from a small base,” says Jeremias Adams-Prassl, author of Humans as a service and an expert on the future of work. “But I think the trend is more than that – actually, a lot of more traditional work started to be set up and designed in similar ways to it.”

“The real sleight of hand is deeper. It’s the whole industry – basically every tech firm – convincing people that they are not employees”
James Muldoon, Autonomy

Adams-Prassl cites the way in which digital surveillance of employees, which is becoming increasingly commonplace, finds its roots in the gig economy: “These trends are already starting to filter through into regular workplaces.”

Take the film industry. Often seen as just the vestige of superheroes or fantasy beings, digital visual effects and CGI have become such a staple of the film industry in recent years that almost no film is made without them, even in seemingly normal conversations. “Without digital visual effects, there is no film industry,” says Joe Pavlo, a veteran of almost 30 years in the visual effects industry and head of the BECTU trade union, VFX workers branch. “But as a workforce, we are treated as a sort of easily turned off and on resource – and basically, unlimited unpaid overtime is the weapon of choice.”

Pavlo says that on the worst projects, he has regularly worked 100-hour weeks – more than 14 hours a day, seven days a week – while the industry at large is defined by extremely short, fixed-term contracts of just a few months, the renewal of which he says is held over staff in an effort to make them sacrifice stopping work and seeing family for weeks on end in the most intense projects.

All this broad clickwork, in whatever form it takes, is governed by a few key characteristics. First, outsourcing is everywhere. That can take two forms. In the case of content moderators like Sklar, it is that they are literally working for another company on behalf of Facebook. But it also extends to self-employment – the same idea that underpins the wider gig economy that employees aren’t working for the company in question because they are “third-party contractors”.

“The real sleight of hand is deeper,” says Autonomy’s Muldoon. “It’s the whole industry – basically every tech firm – convincing people that they are not employees.”

Atomised monotony

The jobs themselves are usually – as with microworkers earning £4 an hour – low paid. Even if the base salary is adequate, there are still often issues around working conditions – as with the lack of fully trained mental health support for Facebook content moderators. But no matter what subset of clickwork you talk about, one recurring theme cuts through – its monotony.

When Adam Smith, often seen as the forefather of modern capitalism, first wrote of the importance of the division of labour (essentially the hyper-specialisation of tasks such as on a factory line), he worried that the “torpor” of workers forced into the same repetitive tasks would leave them closer to machines than people, unable to function and handle “even the ordinary duties of private life”.

This was that same problem that plagued Henry Ford when he introduced what is seen as the first modern manufacturing line in his Ford automobile plant in Detroit in 1913. That kind of industrial monotony went on to define the trade union and labour movement for the next century.

The main difference with these modern digital factory lines, according to those who Computer Weekly spoke to, is that the work is more disparate and less tangible.

Part of that is to do with the work itself – software work is always harder to picture than hardware work. Because people can’t “hold it in their hand”, as Pavlo says of VFX, the work itself feels easier to exploit and push unachievable targets onto. “Everybody thinks that if it's not real, it’s not as valuable,” he says.

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That is only added to if people don’t understand the technology at play, and presume that all this work is simply automated, solely because they can’t see the workforce itself. One of the biggest microwork sites, for example, is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – somewhat ironically named after an 18th century chess-playing “robot” that, it turns out, was actually operated by a person hidden behind the scenes.

But it is also the fact that the workers themselves are far less visible. For example, unlike the factory line, there is no physical factory. At best siloed in a wide network of outsourced employers or working remotely in countless different homes, usually in Third World countries where wages can be lower and employment law is lax, it is hard to really gauge of the size of the clickwork workforce, let alone be able to physically organise, in the way that manual labour did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“What we’re talking about here are companies that are built by thousands of underpaid, undervalued, often overworked workers toiling away in often awful conditions,” says Martha Dark, director of digital rights group Foxglove. “But that disconnect between those different companies and the workers, it’s much harder to come together to collabourate, to organise and to collectively bargain.”

That is only worsened by the companies themselves, which often set up their systems to offer as little transparency as possible. Dark says content moderators at Facebook sign non-disclosure agreements so binding that they aren’t allowed to tell friends and family that they’re working for Facebook. On most microwork platforms, they aren’t even told what company they’re working for on any given task.

Mix that with long chains of outsourcing, and more often than not there is an increasingly small handful of people who actually know the basic facts of who is working for whom.

“I think that the story here is about how labour is getting hidden by technology,” says Adams-Prassl. “We like to pretend that everything’s all about tech innovation. We have to look beyond the shiny technology to realise the reality of the work being done.”

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