But technology is also enabling a new type of terrible work, in which Americans complete mind-numbing tasks for hours on end, sometimes earning just pennies per job. And for many workers living in parts of the country where other jobs have disappeared—obviated by technology or outsourcing—this work is all that’s available for people with their qualifications.
This low-paid work arrives via sites like CrowdFlower, Clickworker, Toluna, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to name a few. Largely unregulated, these sites allow businesses and individuals to post short tasks and pay workers—in cash or, sometimes, gift cards—to complete them. A recent Mechanical Turk listing, for example, offered workers 80 cents to read a restaurant review and then answer a survey about their impressions of it; the time limit was 45 minutes. Another, which asked workers to fill out a 15-minute psychological questionnaire about what motivates people to do certain tasks, offered $1, but allowed that the job could take three hours.
While I don't think anyone should be working all day for less than minimum wage, I wonder who wins if we successfully push back against sites like Mechanical Turk. It's not like Uber, where an actual job that paid a living wage is being replaced with a gig job that pays basically nothing. No amount of lawsuits or lobbying is going to make Mechanical Turk give its workers minimum wage and paid bathroom breaks, it's just going to cause the site to shut down, and instead of getting paid $30 a day, all of the workers are going to make nothing and all the bad things they they needed that $30 to avoid are going to happen.
I think the bigger problem here is the economic circumstances that force people to work for these sites, rather than the sites themselves. If you work retail and they only give you 20-30 hours per week because they don't want to pay you benefits, but they also require you to be available at any time, you can't take a second job, so you're forced to do more flexible work such as filling out surveys on the internet, just to make any extra money, no matter how little it is. If you don't have any job at all, you'll spend 16 hours a day filling out internet surveys, just so you don't starve. The longer hours that someone works these jobs just shows exactly how desperate they are, but that desperation isn't cured by getting rid of their only meager source of income, it's cured by creating an economic safety net that actually works.