Requesters use Mechanical Turk because they can farm out menial work on the cheap and get that work done quickly—with hundreds of workers each transcribing one minute of an audio file, for example, a final product can be returned in short order. Other sites like Crowdspring, which is an online marketplace for graphic design and other creative services, and Snapwire, a photo-crowdsourcing site, allow companies to get creative work done at a low cost.
On most of these sites, requesters hold more leverage. While there are forums where workers advocate for being paid fairly, requesters on Mechanical Turk are free to set pay as they please—the site allows requesters to list payments as low as $0.01, merely telling requesters to “consider how long it will take a Worker to complete each assignment.” (Amazon takes a 20 percent fee on what requesters pay workers, double what it charged in 2015, an increase that some workers on the platform say has caused requesters to offer less money.) Requesters can then “reject” work that is submitted if it doesn’t meet their standards. Workers don’t get paid if their work is rejected, or if they have to return a task. Also, some Turk workers have complained of their accounts getting terminated without notice, or of preferential treatment that lets some workers get the special qualification of “Master,” which allows them to get different tasks.
Sometimes, requesters will say that a task will take 20 minutes when it actually takes an hour, Erica says, but by the time she realizes that, she’s devoted enough time to the task that it’s worth completing. Those times, she told me, “I’ve felt so ripped off that I’ve walked away and cried.”
But despite the problems with Mechanical Turk, when Erica and her partner, who works for a food company, have a big bill coming up, she’ll spend extra time in front of the computer. Workers can choose to get paid every day, rather than waiting for a paycheck for two weeks. “I do it because on certain weeks, I can have a guaranteed $20 to send out to pay our bills—when we are completely flat-out broke until the following pay period,” she told me. Recently, Erica says, Amazon’s payments system has been on the fritz, though, and she hasn’t been able to get the money as quickly. The inability to get that $20 or $30 is a big problem in her household—currently, it means she doesn’t have the money to buy food to make for dinner. “I guess I’ll have to improvise,” she wrote to me, in an email. (Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment about this article.)
Erica’s experience with Mechanical Turk is not an anomaly. A research paper published in December that analyzed 3.8 million tasks on Mechanical Turk, performed by 2,676 workers, found that those workers earned a median hourly wage of about $2 an hour. Only 4 percent of workers earned more than $7.25 an hour. Kotaro Hara, the lead author of the study and a professor at Singapore Management University, told me that workers earn so little because it’s hard to secure enough tasks to be working every minute they’re in front of the computer. He says workers spend a lot of time looking for tasks, waiting for the interface to load, and trying to complete poorly explained tasks before deciding to return them. (The paper did not research how many of the people it tracked depended on Mechanical Turk as their sole source of income.)