Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass

Image of Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass
Release Date: 
May 7, 2019
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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“Read this book to learn which global companies are treating their contributing workers well and how to do business with them.”

“The dismantling of employment is a deep, fundamental transformation of the nature of work. Traditional full-time employment is no longer the rule.”

Ghost Work is a precursor to the 2020 election, spotlighting how the nature of traditional workplace benefits and perceived security have been gutted by giant technology companies, who use uncontracted, bit-piece workers to craft their consumer demanded products. Thanks to the reach of the data cloud and the Internet, more people can work for less all over the world, sometimes not even being paid for their work.

“Only 52% of today’s employers sponsor workplace benefits of any kind.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 10.1% of U.S. workers perform work without any explicit or implicit long-term employment contract. In fact, many people hold down multiple jobs, so the idea of a primary job is not germane to 31% of the national workforce.

Until now, people have often assumed that workers lacking fulltime work with luxurious benefits were those working menial labor. Ghost Work guts this perspective with constant examples of educated, trained, and high-tech workers who are increasingly working with no labor protections.

However, as Gray and Suri reveal, it is World War II era labor laws that are abiding this surge in contract workers, created originally for the garment industry, where people were paid by the piece. “A study by JP Morgan Chase Institute found that 4.3% of U.S. adults, or 10.73 million people had worked an online-platform-economy job at least once between 2015 and 2016.”

Amazon, maximizer of cloud technology and on-demand products delivered to your doorstep, established the first on-demand work website, Mturk, in 2005. Mturk appealed to global workers, to complete tasks for its empire, and opened up a whole new era in unregulated hiring practices.

Mturk currently has between 100,000 and 200,000 registered “requesters,” which is the term it uses to describe these piece workers. This heralded the business practice of offloading training, oversight, or responsibility for this vast web of individuals contributing to Amazon’s products. This practice was soon followed by Google and other tech giants.

Piece workers for technology earn an astoundingly low rate of pay, even in the U.S., because all workers compete globally for the same work. So, five dollars an hour may be a decent wage in India but it is not a living wage in America. “Joan, now one of Mturk’s top 4% of workers is lucky enough to earn more than $7.25 an hour completing tasks.”

Contrast this to the minimum wage of $12–$16 per hour in the Seattle area, which varies depending on employer size, and $12 per hour in California and Massachusetts, where the lead tech centers are located.

And in addition to this race-to-the-bottom for work Amazon charges these workers 20% of everything they receive, including tips or bonuses. This brings to mind the company towns owned by plantation lords.

Further, in the U.S. Amazon Mturk workers must deposit earnings into an Amazon pay account. In order to transfer the money out of that account they have to pay a fee for every transfer from Amazon to have access to their money. Only workers in India can receive actual cash direct deposit or check payments. All other global Mturk workers are only paid with Amazon gift cards.

Ghost Work is by no means a bedtime story, and caffeine may be required to get through “labor arbitrage” and the many references to the “Pareto distribution,” which is an academic term to illustrate human behavior statistically. Quick tip, anytime you read arbitrage it is not a good thing for workers, but a money maker for those lords at the top.

Read this book to learn which global companies are treating their contributing workers well and how to do business with them. Though some of Ghost Work’s suggestions for future improvements, especially in health care, are scary and not born of medical evidence, you have to appreciate the enthusiasm.