January 5, 2015; The Nation

Writing for the Nation, Michelle Chen suggests that a new big threat to the progress of working people and perhaps the economy as a whole is crowdsourced labor, online platforms like Mechanical Turk (identified as an Amazon company) that “provide virtual hiring halls in which people request and advertise miscellaneous help, ranging from sorting someone’s e-mail inbox to participating in an online behavioral study,” essentially enabling “every netizen to become a mini-boss or a mini-temp.”

Crowdsourced labor sounds neat, flexible, hip, but it is also without structure and standards—including questions of minimum wages. What protections are there for the online-recruited crowdsourced employee whose employer may simply refuse to pay—or for the crowdsourcing employer whose employee absconds with the product the person was recruited to produce?

Chen notes that one crowdsourced labor site, Crowdflower, was sued by workers for allegedly violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. The charges included workers not being paid a minimum wage or not being paid at all. One Crowdflower employee, Christopher Otey, charged that Crowdflower is structured and run so that “task requesters can pay micro-taskers less than the legal minimum, perhaps the equivalent of just $2 or $3 per hour.” Crowdflower responded that it doesn’t control the employer/employee relationship, that the FLSA doesn’t apply to crowdsourced labor, and that the recruited employees are not really employees, but, according to a Crowdflower spokesperson, “independent contractors…free to work whenever, wherever, however they wish for whoever they wish for as long or as short a time as they wish.”

In the nonprofit sector, the use of “independent contractors” is often a strategy of financially constrained organizations, but many “1099’d workers” aren’t actually independent contractors at all. They do the work of regular employees, except without the labor protections a real employee would have. Enforcement of labor protections in circumstances where employer and employee may be working at a distance, not ever seeing each other in the flesh, might be more difficult to track and take action against when the platform isn’t an office or a worksite floor, but digital. It probably is no surprise to find Amazon behind Mechanical Turk, given that Amazon is a major player in the “supply chain subcontracting” strategy of using temporary employees whose recruitment and management is outsourced to staffing companies.

Why is the emergence of crowdsourced labor an issue for nonprofits? For one, crowdsourced labor—or call it “micro-employment”—may be another form of what economists call the “casualization of labor,” the shift from full-time employment with a full array of labor protections to part-time, piecemeal employment with few or none. Despite the purported economic recovery in the U.S., as demonstrated by the decreasing unemployment rate, real wages have been stagnating and part-time employment is taking the place of full-time jobs and careers. That will reverberate into the programs of nonprofits as they find families in their communities less able to find decent jobs even though by Bureau of Labor Standards they may be considered employed.

Second, we can imagine some nonprofits reading about crowdsourced labor and thinking that reconceptualizing themselves as microemployers of microworkers for microtasks is a neat end-around their problem of having to recruit and retain staff. Crowdflower’s selected list of employers that have used its services includes nonprofit universities such as Stanford, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon and other nonprofits, like Caring and Mozilla. We suspect that many more nonprofits have probably found crowdsourced labor an appropriate fit.

And third, we suspect that crowdsourcing employment operators such as Crowdflower will be seen by some as social entrepreneurs capable of applying business techniques—in this case, microemployment—to social problems. For example, we have seen reports of Crowdflower offering its services in post-earthquake Haiti, working in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation-funded microwork social business Samasource. “Transformational entrepreneurship” expert Ryan Allis uses Crowdflower as an exemplar of a successful for-profit social enterprise as part of his argument about the superiority of the for-profit over the nonprofit form.

There are undoubtedly positive intentions behind many of the users of Crowdflower, Mechanical Turk, and other crowdfunded microemployers, even to the point of suggesting that social enterprises like these can be cogs in a system of “socially responsible outsourcing,” albeit in a section of the global economy that is largely unregulated. But this statement of Crowdflower founder Lukas Biewald is quite important regarding the future of work in the U.S. and perhaps around the world: “Before the Internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes,” Biewald said. “But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore.” Something about that is a little troubling for the future of labor.—Rick Cohen