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Inside the online sweatshops

Posted on 6 Aug 2010 at 15:52

Stewart Mitchell uncovers the appalling rates of pay on offer for online work

With the recession continuing to bite, many people may be tempted to venture online to find extra income.

There are plenty of ways to find work on the internet - Amazon, Google and YouGov all run schemes where you can earn money for your work - but you'll be competing against some desperate people from around the world and the pay rates can be pitifully low. Get rich quick, this definitely is not.

During the Great Depression in the US, workers lined up on street corners, waiting for farmers to arrive in trucks and take them to work in the fields. Work referral schemes such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk and Elance mean that nowadays there's a global work gang hanging around on the web, and potential employees can pick and choose talent, safe in the knowledge that many are willing to work for well below the minimum wage.

The intense global competition for work means wages are driven so low that people labour for hours on repetitive, menial tasks, turning employment opportunities into online sweat shops.

We joined the job queue to find out exactly how hard you have to work for your money at some of the web's best known employers.

Mechanical Turk

On Amazon's Mechanical Turk companies post work they want doing with a price for each piecemeal chunk of labour. They are largely unskilled tasks that cannot be completely automated.


One such Human Intelligence Task (HIT) we tried involved finding the website, physical addresses and phone numbers of hotels for a travel website, for only $0.01 a time.

The contract is for 2,436 HITs, so was potentially worth $24, but a brief dabble with the mind-numbing work found the details often took more than a minute to locate, which equates to a rate of around $0.60 an hour, barely enough to cover the electricity bill.

Later we bagged a $4.25 HIT for writing the blurb about an online retailer for a price-comparison site. The work took about half an hour, but each HIT has to be approved, and your correspondent (with 16 years of journalistic experience) was more than miffed to receive the following feedback: “Your article did not meet our standards and was rejected. Please try harder next time.”

As non-acceptance equals non-payment we took up the offer of "specific feedback", which promised to enlighten us as to the reasons for the rejection, but it was frustratingly blank.

We contacted the commissioning company, MediaPiston, which blamed a “bug in the system” for the rejection and sent payment almost immediately through PayPal, but it was nonetheless additional grief and work for the princely final sum of £2.59.



Market research company YouGov is one of several firms that pays for your opinions. After signing up, applicants receive between 50 and 100 points per survey they fill out, with each survey taking anything between five and 20 minutes, according to YouGov.

Once users reach 5,000 points they receive a cheque for £50. It sounds tempting, but if you break it down the hourly rate isn't going to pay the rent.

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User comments

Joe from MediaPiston


Thanks for mentioning our young company, MediaPiston in your article.

MediaPiston is a pre-release service, and evolving every day. As such, it does have bugs, and I apologize if we couldn't get the information you were looking for. We're working on a better system of communication between the writers, our staff and the customers.

One thing I'd like to share is that MediaPiston's focus is on high quality -- and that means high pay. Although your $4.25 assignment took an hour, for writers in our system doing dozens of these every day, they go much faster.

Also, MediaPiston is unique in that we apply more scrutiny to new contributors and we reward higher pay and better assignments to demonstrated loyality and consistent high quality.

Unlike a lot of other crowdsourcing platforms that are based on a premise of "lowest bid wins the deal", we believe in higher pay for higher quality and we're building out our system with that philosophy in mind. We believe it will be one of the many things that set us apart.

Best regards,
Joe from MediaPiston

By jheitzeb on 9 Aug 2010

Too quick to judge

The author of this article is too quick to judge. If you actually read some of the research with respect to MechTurk worker's motivation, you would understand that the majority are doing it for fun, out of boredom, or to kill time. Also, many people who are on MechTurk supplying hits are researchers and graduate students who often pay out of pocket to get data for research projects. Research helps society on a whole and is not for profit. Last, I don't think the research community would appreciate our studies being referred to as "menial" or "mindless". Perhaps you should learn a little more about people's motivations before being so quick to judge. Or is it all about getting a good story?

By research1 on 9 Aug 2010

By the way...

The research on motivation for MechTurk workers can be found at: Current Directions in Psychological Science under: Burhmester, Kwang, & Gosling.

I am not defending major corporations who HAVE the money to pay decent wages, but simply find it cost effective not to. However, I am defending the research community who, on a whole, cannot afford their research expenses as it is....and those efforts are to serve mankind in general.

By research1 on 9 Aug 2010

You're spot on.

I've been turking for a few months now, and can attest to the fact that Mr. Mitchell's experiences are typical.

Self-serving denials like MediaPiston's and research1's are typical as well. Most requesters I've dealt with seem to have convinced themselves that they are, if anything OVER-paying, as if it takes no longer to compose a sentence than it does to read one.

It's sickening, but if you need the money desperately enough, you're going to keep going there, tip-toeing through the list of job offers like the minefield it is.

By dualienoted on 9 Aug 2010

Turker Worker

I think your experience with MTurk represents that of most people on their first day or so looking through the site. There are a lot of tasks that are not worth doing, this is true. But many of the tasks are nearly mindless. If you can be making $1.50 an hour while watching a movie or doing other stuff, why not?

Likewise, if you are willing to devote some time and hard work, requesters often reward you with higher and higher qualifications. By doing this, I have been able to get some batches of HITs that pay between $10-$20 an hour.

You're right, MTurk is never something I would rely on for rent or as a full time job. But in my free time? Make a couple extra hundred a month? Yes please.

By araenel on 13 Aug 2010

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