09 Mar 2021
Today we have allied perspectives from workers in AI. Sherry Stanley, a Turker who lives in rural West Virginia, talks about worker-led organizing against poor treatment by Amazon Mechanical Turk and requesters who post tasks. She and other Turker-Organizers contribute labor essential to building machine learning systems, but don’t get rewards or credit. They ask fellow tech workers and AI researchers to support their campaigns and infrastructure with recurring donations to Turkopticon, the forum they run. We have a statement by organized Google workers in solidarity with Google’s Ethical AI team co-leads, Dr. Margaret Mitchell and Dr. Timnit Gebru. It includes calls to protect workers and to support them by “walking out” on sponsorships and funding until we see real change for everyone working in tech and AI.
The Worker’s Perspective
By Sherry Stanley
If you do anything with machine learning, your company or university probably hires workers like me to clean, organize, or make data to train algorithms. I live in West Virginia on a farm with chickens, and I help build tech by completing tasks posted by “requesters” on Amazon Mechanical Turk. But Turkers know what we need from Amazon, and we’re organizing to get it.
I know that the AI industry is worth trillions of dollars, producing “scientific innovation” off of our backs, without giving us fair pay or any credit for our work. And I am one of tens of thousands of workers who depend on Amazon Mechanical Turk to make a living. Some do this work as a side job to make ends meet, or to buy Christmas gifts, go to a nice dinner, just have some luxury. The reason I did it though was I had no other choice at the time. You may think everyone has a choice; I didn’t. Around six years ago I didn’t have any form of transportation and living in rural West Virginia in the downturn of coal mining was not the prime market to get a job. I was stuck home with a computer and no way really to pay the bills I had. Then a friend suggested MTurk, and away I went.
Learning to Turk was the hardest job training I have ever endured because there is no training except Google searching and hoping you find the right task to make money. The work consists of a series of repetitive tasks and includes everything from data labeling, image classification, and social science surveys. I can remember some days of working on nothing but recording my voice saying “Hey Google” with various other instructions knowing I was training something to recognize my West Virginia twang. Other days, some of the tasks would be explaining how pictures make me feel for hours or rate how toxic a tweet was. One thing I can honestly say is the work is definitely varying and more than likely has been included in your life one way or the other. In the beginning, MTurk was wonderful and I basked in the glory of being able to finally support my children. Then I started realizing I was working more and more hours and my life was becoming consumed with Turk. I set alarms that if I caught high paying work I would wake up in the middle of a dead sleep because I needed the money.
Turkers deal with the worst treatment on the platform. But it wasn’t until I received my first mass rejection that I thought this ain’t such a good thing after all. Requesters are our employers on the platform. They post “Human Intelligence Tasks” (HITs), and one requester simply mass-rejected over 80 tasks I completed without a reason and obviously without paying me. I knew I had done my job, but I had no recourse. Requesters can take our work without paying for it, and Amazon doesn’t do anything about it. I know one Turker even had a requester find her real name and then threaten to send local authorities after her for harassment because she had contacted their IRB and had left them bad reviews. It’s sad that requesters can use our own reviews against us and threaten to have our accounts shutdown, all just because we try to have places we can organize and protect each other. But the bigger problems are the bigger players.
Two infamous requesters are Chris Callison Burch at UPenn and Jeffrey Bigham at CMU. They’ve received grants worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to “help Turkers,” but then they used that money to put HITs with terrible pay! And when TO asked them for donations and support, they ignored me and made me feel like they were saying, “Nah. But we’ll go to the NSF and say we’ll get more money to help.” They’re getting famous making scientific breakthroughs by breaking our backs.
So although Amazon and requesters like Chris and Jeffrey don’t respond, we’re trying to fix that by reviewing and rating requesters. We use Turkopticon, which is like Yelp! for us to express our frustrations, meet each other, and organize. 10 years ago, Lilly Irani and Six Silberman started Turkopticon as a student project, and developed it into a site where Turkers could finally have a place to vent and share information. We use it to post reviews, to find requesters who are mass rejectors, and reach out and ask them why they’re doing it. And because we are now organized, Turkopticon workers are able to get some response from Amazon.
I don’t want to kill the MTurk platform because so many people depend on it for work. It’s just that Amazon is so sensitive - worse than my teenage kids, who give me better answers when I ask them things!
It’s so hard to have any connections in the Turk World. People don’t understand that even though, as we are independent contractors, and that means we don’t have employee rights, we still deserve human transparency. What I mean by that is we deserve to know the who, what, why and where of our work: why work is rejected, what our work is building, why our accounts are suspended, where does our data go when not it’s not paid and most of all we deserve to know who we are working for. Turkers know what we want.
Right now, we’re working to migrate Turkopticon from a university server and make it 100% worker-run. We’re recruiting other Turkers for one-on-one conversations to build solidarity among us. We have forum moderators who help Turkers who get really upset and vent at Turkopticon to channel their anger back at Amazon. We’re also developing campaigns for real change around account suspensions, to actually see the policies Amazon uses to guide how they treat us, and protect workers from mass rejections. Eventually we’ll invest in overhauling our Turkopticon requester review system.
So today, we Turkers are the requesters! We’re requesting monthly recurring donations to support our organizing and infrastructure.
As a worker who builds tech, there’s a lot you can do to support our work. Our main request is for you to make a recurring donation and provide a steady flow of resources for organizing. If you want to share what you know about how Mechanical Turk policies, technologies, or how requesters work, contact a Turkopticon organizer like me. Or if you just want to help strengthen our organizing generally, please get in touch. Workers know what we need for better work conditions, and we need to help each other and stand together to get there.
The Future Must be Ethical
Organized Google workers released a statement on March 9th in solidarity with Dr. Margaret Mitchell and Dr. Timnit Gebru, the co-leads of Google’s Ethical AI team who were both fired by the company in an egregious display of retaliation, gaslighting, and research censorship. In the statement, workers call on communities beyond the company to take a stand, noting that Google’s moves to silence critical research and harm those behind it poses a significant threat to the public interest.
From the statement:
“With the firing of Drs. Mitchell and Gebru, Google has made it clear that they believe they are powerful enough to withstand the public backlash, and are not concerned with publicly damaging their employees’ careers and mental health. They have also shown that they are willing to crack down hard on anyone who would perturb the company’s quest for growth and profit. Google is not committed to making itself better, and has to be held accountable by organized workers with the unwavering support of social movements, civil society, and the research community beyond.”
The statement makes clear calls to action. It asks legislators to better protect tech whistleblowers, students to reject recruitment from Google, conferences and universities to cease taking funding from Google, among other actions.
We wholeheartedly back these calls for sympathy action, and applaud the Google workers leading the way in identifying the kinds of worker and community solidarities that will be necessary to take on companies with the power and reach of Google.