Home Amazon’s Other Service: A Virtual Sweatshop? Actually, No

Amazon’s Other Service: A Virtual Sweatshop? Actually, No

Amazon’s web services get a ton of press, but mostly in the context of the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), the Simple Storage Service (S3), SimpleDB or one of the company’s other developer-centric offerings. One that doesn’t get much coverage in the tech media these days is the Mechanical Turk service, which Amazon refers to as the “on-demand workforce.” When it does get coverage, it is sometimes to level accusations that Amazon is offering workers at sweatshop wages. But are those concerns really valid? Just who are these workers?

What is Mechanical Turk?

The Mechanical Turk service, which Amazon released in November of 2005, is a web service that allows companies to outsource simple, generally repetitive tasks to human workers for small sums of money. It now has 100,000 workers in 100 countries and counts corporations such as comparison search engine PriceGrabber among its users.

The service got mainstream attention when Amazon used it to help organize a virtual search for missing Microsoft researcher Jim Gray last year.

A quick survey of open assignments on the Mechanical Turk site reveal a handful that pay up to $15.00 but the vast majority paying out under $1, and many paying only a few cents. There are over 31,000 so-called Human Intelligence Tasks available on the site right now, but scanning through them by price makes it easy to imagine that collectively they’re still probably not worth as much as what some of Amazon’s executives can find in their couch cushions. So it’s not hard to see how some people could accuse Amazon of creating a virtual sweatshop labor force.

Who Are These People?

A recent demographic survey done through Mechanical Turk sheds some surprising light on just who these “Turkers” are, however. Contrary to the pictures painted by some media outlets that Amazon has assembled a third world workforce of people willing to work for pennies, most Turkers are actually from the United States. According to the survey, 76.25% are from the US, with just over 8% from India.

Further, the vast majority of Mechanical Turk participants are under 40 years of age, and over 50% of them have bachelor’s degrees. About half also make over $25,000 per year — and a surprising percentage make over $40,000 per year.

So why participate in the Mechanical Turk program — one which nets most people under $600 per year — if you’re well educated, already have a paying job, and there are so many other ways to make money? One answer is that people find the tasks offered on Mechanical Turk fun. The Amazon service provides people with time wasters that also pay a little money and for younger users, especially, the service offers an easy way to make a little pocket change.

A recent New York Times article relates a number of anecdotal stories about why people participate, as does an earlier post on Panos Ipeirotis’s blog (Ipeirotis is responsible for the demographic survey referenced in this post). Clearly, very few people participate in Mechanical Turk solely to make money. Most people do it out of boredom, to make a little pocket change, or because they are limited in the type of work they can do due disability or some other reason.

Have you ever used Mechanical Turk to outsource a task? Have you ever participated as a worker? What was the result? Let us know in the comments.

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