Internet jobs for less than £4 per hour: How ‘microwork’ is exploiting thousands of Brits

An emerging form of internet working, dubbed ‘microwork’, is exploiting thousands of UK workers who in many cases are earning less than £4 an hour.

‘Microwork’ is a form of work on digital platforms in which short tasks are assigned to workers who are paid piece wages for completing them.

This can consist of coding data to teach algorithms, short translation tasks, surveys, tagging content and identifying images.

It has provided new opportunities for workers to participate in the labour market but has been found to exacerbate labour market inequalities. Workers on these platforms are not classified as employees under labour law and are being paid below the minimum wage for their work.

Easy access to these digital tools enables workers to transform time outside of work into economically productive activity labouring on digital platforms.

Some workers appreciate the flexibility of microwork but an investigation by Autonomy and researchers at the University of Exeter and the London School of Economics (LSE) has shown a darker side to this work.

An investigation by the think tank Autonomy has revealed how on three major microwork platforms – Clickworker, Prolific and Amazon Mechanical Turk – that 95 per cent of UK microworkers earn below the minimum wage for this work.

In fact, almost 2 in 3 microworkers earn less than £4 an hour while more than half receive no pension from their work.

Almost 30 per cent of microworkers spent at least 30 minutes on unpaid activities for every hour of paid work on the platform.

The distinction between work and non-work continues to be blurred as companies develop new ways to create economic value out of workers’ activity.

“The research shows that it leaves workers feeling stressed, burnt out and unable to recover from their time at work,” Autonomy said. 

Not just the UK

While this kind of microwork began in the United States, it has become a global phenomenon.

Today, the majority of workers access microwork platforms from countries in the Global South such as India, Kenya and Venezuela. Some estimates suggest that the number of people working on these sites globally could be as high as 20m.

The first of these platforms to emerge was Amazon Mechanical Turk, which became a prototype for many of the platforms – such as Clickworker, Appen and Playment – that followed. 

These platforms host contractors, often large tech companies – who outsource short tasks such as annotating images – to workers often not covered by employment law.

Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said that “thousands of microworkers are being unfairly exploited in an exploding industry which has zero regulation.”

He added that: “the Government should name and shame the companies paying microworkers below the minimum wage. This invisible online workforce deserves better compensation and protections in work.”


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