Are Contingent Workers The New Peons?

I’ve written a lot about the rise of the contingent workforce, the increasing degree of job flexibility and the swelling ranks of remote workers. As a natural optimist, I tend to focus on the benefits these roles offer to employees through greater flexibility and increased autonomy. Not to mention the improved agility and staffing responsiveness they offer employers.

Wikimedia Commons, National Archives, Public Domain

There is, of course, another side to the story of the growing non-permanent workforce. From the concerns expressed by the US Department of Labor about employers using temporary and contract workers to reduce payroll costs and avoid offering benefits, to even more sinister interpretations of the trend.

Independent Workers or Digital Peasants?

Recently, for example, in response to a listener’s question, the Canada Broadcast Corporation (CBC) aired a show called “The hidden social reality behind digital labor.” The segment explored the reality of today’s digital pieceworkers.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of piecework, it’s been around for a long time. Piecework is any work for which an employee is paid “by the piece,” rather than by an hourly wage or salary.

In the past, repetitive manual tasks were farmed out, often to home-based workers, and payment was made for each completed piece of work. On the upside, piecework, being performance-based, favored the highly productive worker. Unfortunately, the work itself was typically low paid, repetitive and sometimes dangerous. Piecework tasks range from assembling circuit boards[1] to sewing clothes or making fireworks and matches.[2] In many economically challenged communities, entire families would sit around a table for hours on end for the privilege of being paid a penny a piece. Imagine, if you will, children rolling firecrackers with streaks of gun-powder caked under their runny noses.[3] That was (and still is, in some parts of the world) traditional piecework.

Although entire families still make fireworks, circuit boards and matches for pennies in various parts of world; today’s digital pieceworkers are a different breed. Few are children and they are often highly educated. As described in the CBC broadcast mentioned above, knowledge workers around the world are using their degrees in philosophy, psychology, anthropology, etc. to digitally annotate and interpret help queries or moderate user generated content from their homes. Some initiate discreet programming actions over and over and over each day. They typically work without benefits, perks or even a consistent volume of work. Much like feudal workers of old, they have few rights, no control and can be cut off at any time.

Not Your Typical Downtrodden Worker

The question many researchers are beginning to ask is whether this represents the emergence of a new class of “digital peasantry” or just a new kind of employment relationship. As companies break activities down into micro-tasks and then competitively crowdsource them to digital pieceworkers around the globe[4], a vast unseen talent pool has evolved. And just as the crowd watching the fireworks is oblivious to children handling gun powder—smartphone users enjoying the latest app don’t think about the person behind the technology, who may be paid very little to churn out code.

But are these evidence of worker exploitation or something else entirely?The following introduction to one recent study reflects real confusion about the issue:

“The micro-task paradigm, though, appears to go contrary to economic logic for task workers. Although the task completion has been recognized as similar to regular work (Kaufmann et al., 2011), the micro-payments (frequently about $0.01 to $0.10 per task) and a median reservation wage of $1.38/hour for paid crowdsourcing platforms (Horton & Chilton, 2010) are far below regular minimum wage in the traditional workplace. Moreover, typical micro-task crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk are dominated by highly educated workers who possess bachelors or advanced degrees (Ipeirotis, 2010a; Ross et al., 2010). Are these highly educated individuals acting irrationally by completing low-pay micro-tasks?“[5]

What do you think? Are these trends toward less secure (but much more flexible) work arrangements driven by employers in an effort to reduce costs and shed risk; or do they stem from employees and their drive for more autonomy and flexibility as it intersects with new technological realities that make this type of work possible?


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[1] Aihwa Ong. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty.

[2] International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The Best Kept Secret. Child Labour Round the World.

[4] Mikko Torikka Crowdsourcing startup Microtask gets gamers to do some real work.

[5] Ling Jiang and Christian Wagner, City University of Hong Kong. Participation in Micro-task Crowdsourcing Markets as Work and Leisure: The Impact of Motivation and Microtime Structuring

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