A woman living in Kenya’s Dadaab, which is among the world’s largest refugee camps, wanders across the vast, dusty site to a central hut lined with computers. Like many others who have been brutally displaced and then warehoused at the margins of our global system, her days are spent toiling away for a new capitalist vanguard thousands of miles away in Silicon Valley. A day’s work might include labelling videos, transcribing audio, or showing algorithms how to identify various photos of cats.
Amid a drought of real employment, “clickwork” represents one of few formal options for Dadaab’s residents, though the work is volatile, arduous, and, when waged, paid by the piece. Cramped and airless workspaces, festooned with a jumble of cables and loose wires, are the antithesis to the near-celestial campuses where the new masters of the universe reside.
Each task represents a stretching of the gulf between the vast and growing ghettos of disposable life and a capitalist vanguard of intelligent bots and billionaire tycoons. The barbaric and sublime bound in a single click.
The same economy of clicks determines the fates of refugees across the Middle East. Forced to adapt their sleeping patterns to meet the needs of firms on the other side of the planet and in different time zones, the largely Syrian population of Lebanon’s Shatila camp forgo their dreams to serve those of distant capitalists. Their nights are spent labeling footage of urban areas — house,” “shop,” “car” — labels that, in a grim twist of fate, map the streets where the labelers once lived, perhaps for automated drone systems that will later drop their payloads on those very same streets. The sites on which they labor are so opaque that it is impossible to establish with any certainty the precise purpose or beneficiaries of their work.
Just next door, jobless Palestinians are made the targets of M2Work, a collaborative project between Nokia and the World Bank, which aims to give “the most underprivileged people in the world” access to new forms of microemployment. Dedicated to “job creation” in the Global South, the World Bank undoubtedly sees Palestine’s 30% unemployment rate as an unmissable opportunity — an untapped source of cheap labor, readily brought into the sphere of global capital by the great telecom networks on which our brave “new economy” rests.
M2Work is only one of many “impact sourcing” ventures that use microwork to reach once inaccessible segments of the global workforce. The NGO Lifelong, run by the company Deepen AI, trains Syrian refugees to annotate data for the likes of Google and Amazon. Similarly, the not-for-profit platform Sama trains refugees in Uganda, Kenya, and India to complete short data tasks and actively recruits refugees to work on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The platform’s motto, “Give work, not aid,” perfectly encapsulates the ethos of such projects.
Microwork comes with no rights, security, or routine and pays a pittance — just enough to keep a person alive yet socially paralyzed. Stuck in camps, slums, or under colonial occupation, workers are compelled to work simply to subsist under conditions of bare life. This unequivocally racialized aspect to the programs follows the logic of the prison-industrial complex, whereby surplus — primarily black — populations [in the United States] are incarcerated and legally compelled as part of their sentence to labor for little to no payment. Similarly exploiting those confined to the economic shadows, microwork programs represent the creep of something like a refugee-industrial complex.
It comes as little surprise that Sama’s former CEO Leila Janah opted for the more euphemistic “virtual assembly line,” in an effort to dress up immiseration as industrious dignity. Though safer than the worst informal work, and in some cases more lucrative, microwork is often still the preserve of those with nowhere else to go. The truth is that microwork programs often target populations devastated by war, civil unrest, and economic collapse, not despite their desperate circumstances — as many advocates like Janah have insisted — but because of them. Such organizations know that workers in Nairobi’s Kibera slum or the shantytowns of Kolkata are hardly in the position to protest low pay or meager rights.
This is the hidden abode of automation: a globally dispersed complex of refugees, slum dwellers, and casualties of occupations, compelled through immiseration, or else law, to power the machine learning of companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Take autonomous vehicles, a growing industry for many of the biggest platforms, estimated to be worth $54 billion in 2019 and well over $550 billion by 2026. So much of the labor that companies like Tesla require centers around the need for clean, annotated data to help its driverless vehicles navigate traffic. Images taken from onboard cameras contain large amounts of raw visual data, which, to become useful, must first be categorized and labeled. The labeled data then shows the car how to differentiate the urban environment and recognize everything from pedestrians and animals to road signs, traffic lights, and other vehicles.
Data training rarely takes place in-house. Instead, companies like Tesla outsource the work to the Global South. In 2018, more than 75% of this data was labeled by Venezuelans facing the most desperate circumstances. In the aftermath of the country’s economic collapse, when inflation was pushing 1 million percent, a significant number of the newly unemployed — including many former middle-class professionals — turned to microwork platforms, like Hive, Scale, and Mighty AI (acquired by Uber in 2019), to annotate images of urban environments, often for less than a dollar an hour.
Though the anonymity granted requesters on these sites makes identifying the large companies they host close to impossible, one can speculate with some certainty that — in typical disaster capitalist style — Google, Uber, and Tesla did very well out of Venezuela’s crisis.
Just as in the Global South, microwork is often the preserve of the excluded and oppressed in the Global North. In a striking example, Finnish penal labor now involves training data for struggling startups. The recruitment company Vainu outsources tasks to prisoners that would otherwise go to Mechanical Turk, aiming to usher in, by its own lights, “a kind of prison reform.” For each task completed, the government body overseeing Finnish prisons receives a payment, though there is no public record of what percentage goes to the inmates doing the tasks. Gratuitous PR efforts to present the scheme as an opportunity to learn a vocation glimmer with bad faith, particularly when one considers how ephemeral, narrow, and arduous the work is. Just as the physically stressful labor of ploughing fields does not take the interests of prisoners as its raison d’être, the psychically damaging work of repeatedly showing an algorithm the various senses of the word “apple” is not about the future prospects of those doing it.
All of the largest companies in the world are today powered by a covert crowd of the system’s castoffs. Platforms have found amid those struggling to stay afloat in informal work — or else barely clinging onto a life in formal employment — a desperate mass to be tempted with the promise of a better life. Such a promise, however, is broken as soon as it is made; the petty services of the informal sector resemble little more than a blueprint for the microtasks of big tech, without offering anything in the way of rights, routine, role, security, or a future.
This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism by Phil Jones, which comes out on October 5.