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Do not let homeworking become digital piecework for the poor


A spare shilling in your pocket in May 1906 would have brought you into London attraction hit that season: an exhibition hall filled with haggard “homeworkers”, bent over their jobs. Signs next to each person explained to spectators their hours, salary and some biographical details. No. 15, for example, made beanies to support herself and “two weakly children” after she “lost her husband in a very tragic way.”

The exhibition was organized to highlight the plight of the “sweaty workers”: factories subdivided the work and distributed it via intermediaries to people (often women) working from home for miserable piece prices.

Homework is generally no longer associated with poverty and hopelessness. In fact, as this year’s pandemic pointed out, “the WFH” in 2020 is a privilege reserved primarily for the well-paid. European data suggests three-quarters of the jobs in the top-paying quintile can be done remotely, compared to just 3% of those in the bottom quintile. But there is a seemingly futuristic way to make money from home without a professional job. This is called crowd work and people flock to because of Covid-19. Take away the 21st century chandelier, and it wouldn’t be out of place in this showroom.

Crowdsourcing platforms allow businesses to break virtual jobs down into smaller tasks and then offer homeworkers to perform them anywhere in the world. Like Uber drivers and other participants in the concert economy, crowd workers are classified as independent contractors and paid by the task. But they are practically invisible and no one knows how many there are.

Janey, from a small former mining town in the United States, became a mob worker after the father of their three children died of an opioid overdose. “If I work 12 to 16 hours a day, I might earn $ 5 an hour,” she said in an interview. research paper by Veena Dubal, Professor at the University of California, Hastings School of Law.

Janey works at the Amazon Mechanical Turk mass job site, where there is no minimum wage and many “applicants” only pay a cent or two per job. “There are so many of us today and fewer quality jobs. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night just to see if I can get some good requests. “Good requests” are only available to workers who have completed a a large number of tasks already and which maintain a high acceptance rate. If your work is rejected (fairly or unfairly), you don’t get paid.

Many tasks involve cleaning or labeling data for companies developing artificial intelligence. Academics also use crowd platforms to recruit participants inexpensively and quickly for surveys.

Researchers in 2017 recorded 2,676 workers performing 3.8 million jobs on the AMT and found the median hourly wage was $ 2 an hour. Only 4 percent earned more than $ 7.25 an hour. Competition is global: workers in the United States earn $ 3.01 an hour on average, while those in India earn $ 1.41. Prolific, a UK-based participatory work platform for surveys and market research, imposes a hourly pay floor by calculating the average time required for workers to complete each task. But while the UK’s statutory minimum wage for people over 25 is £ 8.72 an hour, Prolific’s is £ 5 an hour.

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Why do people do it? Much like homeworkers at the turn of the 20th century, some dabble for pocket money to fill their free hours, while others depend on it because they live in a black job post, have a job. disability, want to stay at home with their children or cannot afford child care.

In 2020, the pandemic created the perfect conditions for a huge growth in crowd work: there is mass unemployment, a childcare shortage and one higher risk of dying of Covid-19 if you do more traditional low-paying work such as social assistance. “You also deserve to be safe,” insisted a recent announcement for Arise, a virtual call center platform where people need to pay for their own equipment and training and can then work from home.

As historian Helen McCarthy explains in her book Double lives, some Edwardian Reformers wanted to conduct homework in factories and [women] free for domestic rights ”. In the United States, certain types of homework have been banned altogether. To patronize paternalism today would be a bad answer. People choose to work on these platforms because they want or need to work from home. If only the rich are granted this privilege, it will open another loophole in a divided society.

But that doesn’t mean that the opportunistic pay rates, opacity and helplessness built into these platforms should be allowed to continue unchecked. Improvements will require regulation, unionization and, in countries like the United States, a better social safety net so people are less desperate. German crowd-workers rely less on platforms than on American platforms, a difference attribute of researchers to the superior social protections of Germany. In July of this year, one in five Americans with children at home could not afford to feed them enough, according to census data.

For many, working from home now looks like the future. But if we’re not careful, it will mean going back in time for some – a throwback that our ancestors fought to leave behind.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com



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