“Amazon turkers need unions; your passion, experience and knowledge.”
Speaking at Union Network International’s European regional conference in Rome, UNI Europa 16, Kristy Milland (pictured left), a worker of ten years’ experience on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, sent out a call to the assembled delegates. “We need unions,” she said, “your passion, experience and knowledge.”
“You have been there and done it, we haven’t” said Milland, a so-called “crowd worker” for the Amazon platform. Now about ten years old, Mechanical Turk is the leading example of its kind—a system for distributing small packages of freelance work (specified by clients known as “requesters”) to the community of workers (known as “providers”, or more colloquially, “turkers”) who may be located anywhere in the world and who compete for rote jobs like correcting web site translations, collecting pictures of jumping fish, cleaning data, or tagging images for online picture libraries.
Milland is Community Manager of TurkerNation.com which began organising workers five or six years ago, once it began to be recognised that they were poorly paid and open to exploitation.
“People earn about a dollar or two an hour, globally,” Milland told the UNI Europa conference. “But outside of India and the United States, workers get paid in Amazon gift cards.”
“The work is either approved and we get paid, or rejected and we don’t. Sometimes they just reject the work and steal it anyway.”
Crowd working is perhaps the starkest example of the way work itself is changing. Like other examples of the so-called sharing economy or gig economy, crowd working represents an attack on the regulation of economic activity and an attack on the ability of workers to organise themselves.
Needless to say, Amazon does not divulge information about this aspect of its operations, but there are an estimated 500,000 crowd workers globally, mostly in the US, but also in low wage economies like India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
According to new data released by UNI Europa this week, around one in every eight workers in Europe are thought to earn at least part of their income from crowd working and other new types of unregulated employment introduced by companies like Uber and AirBnB.
A joint study by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and UNI Europa, with the support of several UNI Europa affiliates including Unionen in Sweden and carried out by University of Hertfordshire with fieldwork by Ipsos MORI, provides evidence of the seismic shift in Europe’s digital economy and the explosion of new models of employment.
The year-long research underlines the fundamental changes the “sharing economy” is causing in labour markets in Europe and across the world. The UK and Sweden are the first of a number of countries to release data from the survey. The analysis released on the opening day UNI Europa 16 relates to Sweden; the UK data was made public last month. Austria and Germany will follow in April, with others including Spain and Netherlands under consideration. “This new world of work has potential to be a positive development for society,” said Susanna Camusso, Secretary-General of CGIL, speaking at UNI Europa 16, “but right now we’re mainly seeing the downside to what an almost entirely unregulated labour market may cause on social cohesion and sustainable growth. This demonstrates the need to change our development model and to fight for truly fair jobs.”
The form of unregulated work typified by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk operation is increasingly attracting the interest of global unions. In many parts of the world, it is an attractive means of eking out an income for students, home-makers and the growing army of the under-employed. But no-one should be in any doubt that this is real work and like freelancing in general is increasingly a mainstream form of quasi-employment. UNI Europa notes that “Europe’s service sector unions are striving to adapt in order to reach out to a new generation of workers”.
“The working world is fundamentally changing due to digitalisation,” said Frank Bsirske (pictured left), UNI Europa’s President and chairman of Germany’s second biggest trade union, Ver.di, during the conference. “We have platform-based business models that undermine and endanger existing companies and their workers, as well as the very idea of employment as it is now.”
“Constantly subjected to competition and always willing to do the job for less pay – many [workers] don’t have any social protection or health insurance cover.”
Earlier in March, before the elections in three German states, Bsirske challenged Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, by issuing a 6 percent pay demand on behalf of public sector workers. Under his leadership, Ver.di has developed something of a reputation for taking on Amazon with a series of strikes designed to improve the pay and conditions of the company’s workers in its second largest market, after the US.
At the UNI Europa 16 conference, Bsirske spoke of the need for a revolution in the way in which unions organise. The aim is to combat current challenges to recruitment in the growing unregulated sectors of the digitalised economy, where workers are often anonymous, not subject to employment regulations and not even supplied with a place to work or the tools of their trade.
As Tom Goodwin, then senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Havas Media, wrote last year on the Techcrunch website: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
Interesting, yes, but challenging to those who fight for the rights of workers.
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