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The Dystopian Digital Sweatshop That Makes the Internet Run

Meet the workers making $1.20 an hour "microtasking" for billion-dollar brands like Microsoft and Amazon--right here in the US.

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If a contractee only has control over the final product, then the worker can be classified as an independent contractor. But the term has come under scrutiny due to high-profile cases, such as that of FedEx drivers claiming employee status. Reclassified as employees, they will have entitlement to overtime, the state minimum wage, and payment for meal and rest breaks.

He continues, “Crowdworkers would need make a compelling case that employers can get that same flexibility while adhering to certain minimal standards. One likely argument -- used with varying degrees of success by unions and other labor groups in the past -- would be that crowdworkers with minimal protections are more qualified, produce better work, and build longer relationships with employers. By design, this industry allows employers to avoid grappling with those issues.”

Felstiner’s 2011 article "Working the Crowd," published when he was a student at UC Berkeley, envisions protections such as “a wage floor, some basic transparency and dispute resolution in work agreements, and reputation portability” -- none of which interfere with the mechanics of the crowdworking model.

Workers at the extreme unskilled end of the crowdworking spectrum remain largely invisible, but they face some of the the same problems as other workers in more established industries. They also present the opportunity to tackle new Web 2.0-era issues, such as the impact of virtual payment types on real pay.

Microtaskers almost perfectly fit academic Guy Standing's definition of the precariat (coined from proletariat and precarious): an unorganized casual on-demand workforce working for low pay, without benefits or access to their direct employer. But this precariat workforce could be at the forefront of challenging big business' most insidious and futuristic attempts to curb workers' rights.

Zakia Uddin is a London-based journalist who writes about music and culture.

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