For Immediate Release:
March 10, 2021
Courtney Holsworth, firstname.lastname@example.org, (989) 572-8162
Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers Launch Effort To Push Back Against Exploitative Labor Practices Through Turkopticon Platform
Today, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers are launching a fundraising campaign to support Turkopticon, a nonprofit crowdsourcing platform for turk workers to share information about exploitative practices and fight for stable, dignified working conditions.
Workers from around the world log on to Amazon Mechanical Turk each day to perform work ranging from completing surveys to testing software prototypes. But a lot of this work consists of labeling and cleaning data for the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning sector. This is repetitive work, without which machine learning would not function. The AI/ML industry is a billion-dollar industry that is built on the labor of these turk workers, yet they have very little labor protections or access to unionize.
Turk workers are raising awareness about long standing issues within the industry, including:
- Mass Rejections: Requesters can “reject” work that is submitted if it doesn’t meet their standards. Workers don’t get paid if their work is rejected, even if they’ve completed a large amount of the work, and a lot of times aren’t provided an explanation for why the work was rejected and have no option for recourse. Amazon has not been responsive to investigate these claims of fraud from MTurk Workers.
- Account Suspensions: Worker accounts getting terminated or suspended without notice or official avenues for challenging the suspension or even knowing what prompted the termination or suspension in the first place.
- Low Wages: Workers aren’t compensated for the time they spend looking for jobs but workers have created tools to help, and requesters are setting the price of projects at extremely low rates in some cases.
“Turking is one of the few job opportunities I have in West Virginia, and like many other turk workers, we pride ourselves on our work,” said Sherry Stanley, MTurkWorker for six years and lead organizer of Turkopticon. “However, we are at the whim of Amazon. As one of the largest companies in the world, Amazon relies on workers like me staying silent about the conditions of our work. We live in constant fear of retaliation for speaking out about the ways we’re being treated. But turk workers deserve greater transparency around the who, what, why and where of our work: why our work is rejected, what our work is building, why accounts are suspended, where does our data go when it’s not paid and who we are working for. Turkopticon is the one tool that Turkers have evolved into an organization to engage with each other about the conditions of our work and to make it better.”
“While decades of progress in machine learning research have produced impressive successes, these results would not be possible without crowdsourced annotations,” said Zach Wood Doughty, a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University. “If future ML systems are to be effective and trustworthy in real-world applications like healthcare, they will require millions of new labels created by annotators over thousands of hours. It is both unjust and unsustainable to treat the workers who produce these annotations as expendable when they are in fact integral to the functioning of machine learning research. We cannot expect our ML research to equitably benefit those inside and outside of the tech industry if we undervalue the contributions of so many workers on which it depends.”
“Different forms of skilled labor have been valued and devalued throughout history, said Jacob Van Dehy, Biomedical Engineer. “A developer today has a lot in common with a machinist in 1978 both in terms of high earnings and high automation potential (MIT isn’t researching AI-driven code for fun). The best way to avoid future workplace precarity, personally, is to organize and fight for the rights of all workers. We have an urgent need to create jobs where every worker can earn a living wage while having dignity and input respected, regardless of the so-called ‘skill level.’ Fighting alongside MTurk workers with Turkopticon allows us to organize and begin building that world.”
Turkopticon is a worker-run non-profit organization whose mission is to organize mutual aid, resources, and advocacy to make Amazon Mechanical Turk work a good job. They operate in solidarity with tech workers from Tech Workers Coalition who help operate servers and organize for better conditions within the tech industry. The fundraising campaign will help Turkopticon establish their own worker-operated server, it will also support paying Turk workers themselves to take time off work for one-on-one conversations to build solidarity among Turkers. Turkopticon has successfully reinstated accounts that have been terminated by Amazon, is one of the only lines of communication that Turk workers have used successfully to reach Amazon, and helped Turk workers connect with each other to identify common grievances and exploitative practices they encounter.
Amazon takes no responsibility in protecting turk workers, who are classified as independent contractors and not afforded employee benefits or protections. In 2019, the Cloud Research Network estimated that there are more than 300,000 workers who have completed at least one batch of work on Amazon Mechanical Turk, and that number is expected to grow throughout 2020 and 2021 as in-person employment closes and people turn to new avenues of employment.