The cost of labour on Mechanical Turk is both tantilising and unsettling. Tantilising because it’s so cheap. That makes it possible to outsource skilled tasks like translation and transcription at remarkably low cost. As a journalist, it’d be great if I could afford to routinely transcribe interview tapes. Prices are still a little high for that, but my hunch is that they will come down.
The unsettling aspect concerns the impact of these wages. Some folks who work flat-out on Mechanical Turk probably earn $2.00 per hour. That’s okay in India, but many Turkers are based in the United States, where the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Discussion forums like Turker Nation are full of people complaining about low wages, but there are still plenty of US-based workers on the site. Sure, some workers find it a pleasant place to waste time and don’t see it as a full-time job. But that doesn’t account for all workers. I’d like to know how many people depend on the site.
The Turker forums are also full of workers complaining about scammers — employers who post jobs and don’t pay, or reject work arbitrarily, thus removing the need to pay. There is a lot of frustration directed at Amazon also. It’s clear that workers think that the company could be doing a better job of cleaning up the site.
I’ve been taking a look at these issues over the past couple of months. The results came out last week in New Scientist. The story is subscriber-only right now, but the brief summary is that scammers continue to evade Amazon’s moderator system. There are jobs that attempt to trick workers into giving away credit card details. Plus lots of jobs that are clearly lead generation scams. The worker fills in an online survey, pretending to be interested in, say, going back to college. Then the employer gets paid a referral fee from colleges looking for new recruits. So the college is being conned and, in the jobs I tried, the workers were too, because the employer didn’t pay me after I filled in the survey. (I’m still getting calls from colleges).
I was struck by the variety of these scams, but they don’t seem to bother experienced workers too much. After the story came out, I thanked the workers on Turker Nation who had helped me, and posted my piece on the forum. One response to my story noted that the scams were easy to avoid and that it was low wages that are the problem.
Scams such as things offering $20 for me to sign up at whatever are not a real big concern for me on Mturk. Do most workers fall for this often? More than once? Ever?
The real problem for workers on Mturk is lowballing requesters. This is how I see it. It’s as if I were walking on a road that was 90% strewn with sharp slivers of glass, and someone is saying – The problem is that there are some huge potholes!”