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Businesses The Almighty Buck

"Micro-Gig" Sites Undermining Workers Rights? 426

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the in-a-small-way dept.
Mystakaphoros writes "An article in The Atlantic examines the effects sites like TaskRabbit, Fiverr, and Rev.com are having on employment and freelancing. (I would add Amazon's Mechanical Turk to the list as well.) As the article mentions, 'Work is being stripped down to the bone. It's as if we're eliminating the 'extraneous' parts of a worker's day — like lunch or bathroom breaks — and paying only for the minutes someone is actually in front of the computer or engaged in a task.' How many Slashdotters have used these sites, either to hire or work? What's been your experience?"
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"Micro-Gig" Sites Undermining Workers Rights?

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  • by Spy Handler (822350) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:25PM (#43413799) Homepage Journal

    Solidarity brother

    Union Yes

  • Age old "issue" (Score:2, Interesting)

    When I put my car in for servicing etc I pay for parts and labour, and when I have workmen in at home to do something it's again parts and labour, so where's the difference?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yep, it's just contract labor. If you're selling it, price your labor appropriately, taking into consideration that you are not getting benefits, etc. If you're buying it take into consideration that you're not getting loyalty, retaining experience and knowledge, etc.

      • by Synerg1y (2169962)

        I've heard the golden rule is 3x your FTE hourly rate. You've got to take self-benefits, work expenses, and the cost of labor into account.

        Some potential employers balk at this, how an individual can ask for oh say $150 an hour in IT, but those folks are just ignorant & greedy and by no means the standard.

        • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:4, Interesting)

          by peter303 (12292) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:37PM (#43414637)
          You must have not contracted then. The rate depends on how long the contract is. Benefits and extra tax cost about 35% extra. So if you have a long period of continuous contract, you charge closer to that mark up. If short periods, say like a day, then you mark up much more to account for down time.
        • by cayenne8 (626475)

          I've heard the golden rule is 3x your FTE hourly rate. You've got to take self-benefits, work expenses, and the cost of labor into account.

          And...incorporate yourself!!!! Do this for the protection, and the tax breaks.

    • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by denis-The-menace (471988) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:34PM (#43413921)

      You cannot watch the car repair guy do the work to see if he is goofing off or taking a dump. You cannot have a legal way of automating this either.

      Oh, you are a computer programmer. Install this big-brother app as terms of your employment contract and THEN we'll pay you.
      BTW: If the camera can't see your eyes while the keyboard is being used, you don't get paid.

      1984 has arrived!

      • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Synerg1y (2169962) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:50PM (#43414093)

        Here's the funny part and a bit of consolidation:

        Nobody skilled would ever take such a job, so it's a by morons for morons type thing.

        • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:4, Insightful)

          by PraiseBob (1923958) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:57PM (#43414207)
          Because being skilled in a field means that person is somehow immune to becoming unemployed and desperate?
      • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Zalbik (308903) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:54PM (#43414169)

        You cannot watch the car repair guy do the work to see if he is goofing off or taking a dump.

        Yes, but you can for a:
        plumber
        painter
        electrician
        furnace duct cleaner
        maid
        nanny
        drywaller
        etc.

        Basically if you are going to someone else's private property to perform work, they can legally monitor your activities and pay you accordingly.

        Oh, you are a computer programmer. Install this big-brother app as terms of your employment contract and THEN we'll pay you.

        No, despite what your mom told you, you aren't special. It's just that latent feeling of entitlement that programmers get due to a lack of sunlight.

        Welcome to the club.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by ebno-10db (1459097)

          It's just that latent feeling of entitlement that programmers get due to a lack of sunlight.

          It could be worse. Some people have a sense of entitlement just because they're United States citizens. Seems they actually believe that populist "We the People of the United States, in Order to ... promote the general Welfare" nonsense, and think the government should act on their behalf! Thankfully, serious and thoughtful people like you and I realize that government does not derive its "just powers from the consent of the governed" (which could lead to gross distortions from citizen's self-interest) but

      • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Informative)

        by alen (225700) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:01PM (#43414247)

        you don't pay for the actual labor time
        there are standards that say how much time it takes to complete a task in fixing a car. you pay by the number of hours in the book

    • by TXG1112 (456055)

      The cost of non billiable hours are built into what you pay for parts and labor. Ever wonder why list prices for construction materials and auto parts are so high and the contractor and mechanics get discounts? It's to pay for overhead costs. If the people doing micro work have built this into their rates, than there is no difference. However, the nature of these sites makes it difficult to include that cost, so people accepting the work are enabling self exploitation.

    • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Nadaka (224565) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:36PM (#43413933)

      The difference is that you expect to pay a mechanic or plumber $50 to $100 an hour... People on these sites expect to get code written for less than minimum wage.

      I was on rent-a-coder for a while before they changed the name. And the expectations and offered pay were ridiculous.

      • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Intrepid imaginaut (1970940) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:50PM (#43414091)

        This is what a directly competitive global market looks like my friend, when you have people with living expenses in double digit dollars competing with those who have triple digit expenses (at least), a disparity in acceptable wages begins to appear.

        Of course a programmer worth their salt will have worked hard enough that they should perhaps be willing to accept no less than a certain minimum, but that is nonetheless a competitive advantage they have in developing countries - why would they compete fairly when they don't have to? Would it even be fair to cut themselves off at the feet like that?

        There is no solution to this quandry. Just pick your battles and keep your customers, really, lots of businesses value security and reliability over low cost.

        • There is a solution

          income and expense parity, globally.

          Everyone living at 2nd world levels.
          (except a very small, very privileged minority of 'owners')
          it ain't pretty.. but that IS what free trade will end at eventually,
          with pain, bloodshed, revolts, and agony on the way....

          the only way to maintain the first world experience will directly conflict free trade.

          • An even better solution would be everyone living at first world levels but that's not going to happen for a half dozen generations minimum (~200 years), so in the meantime here we are. No protection is really possible here, you can't stop or really apply tarriffs to someone paying cash over the internet to someone else for perfectly legal services.

            • by Immerman (2627577)

              >you can't stop or really apply tarriffs to someone paying cash over the internet to someone else for perfectly legal services.

              Why not? It's perfectly possible to circumvent physical tarrifs on a small scale as well, but if you're a company doing a lot of business overseas that's going to show up in your books and you'd better be paying the appropriate taxes according to the relevant laws.

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        That should sort itself out then.
        The code will such and people will stop using the site.

      • by Synerg1y (2169962)

        I thought it used to be decent, but it seems people have lowered the bar on there even more. I do think the site is a bunch of India coders spewing out spaghetti code though nowadays anyways. Nothing relevant or important ever passes through sites like that, and that's where the money's at. Not writing some asshat's chess program for him.

      • by stenvar (2789879)

        I was on rent-a-coder for a while before they changed the name. And the expectations and offered pay were ridiculous.

        You make it sound like people posting some sort of low-ball pay for a programming job is some personal insult and injury to you. But if there's nobody to take the job at the given price, the job doesn't get done, simple as that. Doesn't hurt you, doesn't hurt anybody else.

    • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:39PM (#43413969)

      The difference is that generally the "labour" part of the equation is an inflated hourly rate in order to cover the down-time in between tasks. They also have minimums so that if it takes 10 minutes you still get billed for 30. And

      Generally freelancers have become accustomed to properly accounting for this extra rate charge on every billable hour to fill in the gaps. When you're "working" for mechanical turk you're really no longer an employee you're a business owner. Not everyone is cut out to run a business and nor should they need to, specialization is important. However, with businesses looking to become more efficient they can start calling their janitor a "contractor" and make them pay all of the payroll taxes. Technically that's illegal unless the janitor is also responsible for buying his own mops, brooms and can set his own hours but companies have been pushing the edge of what's legal (and often crossing it) for some time. The goal is often to make as many people 'freelance' as is humanely possible to avoid paying benefits or taxes or comply with safety regulations since their "employees" aren't actually employed--they're separate private businesses working alongside them.

      The easiest way to avoid worker's rights is to avoid making them legally an employee.

      • by ArhcAngel (247594)

        The easiest way to avoid worker's rights is to avoid making them legally an employee.

        By law a full time position must be staffed by an employee. By definition a contract worker must be employed for a specified duration. I know one company that has an h and a p in their initials that routinely lays off all its contract workers the week after Christmas and rehires them the next week to the same position and some of these contract workers have been in their roles for years.

      • by stenvar (2789879)

        And the problem is what? You are willing to do a job at some price, taking into account your skills and expenses, and someone else is willing to offer a certain amount of money to get the job done. Either you match up or you don't. If you don't match up, the job doesn't get done.

    • Re:Age old "issue" (Score:4, Insightful)

      by alexander_686 (957440) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:52PM (#43414137)

      Take a look at the history of the garment industry and piece work.

      As the internet tends to do, it disaggregates things – breaking things up into component pieces. Why does this matter? Workers become more fragmented. Thus, relatively speaking, this shifts power towards management, which is important when you try to negotiate your wage.

      Also, companies tend to invest less in their works – such as training, pension plans, etc. Why bother when there is no longer expectation?

      As for your example, you may or may be paying for “labor”. May places have rate sheets – Installing new breaks is X hours and the workmen are paid for X hours of work even if they don’t work X hours. If journey men take 2X hours – well – they are journey men. If a master mechanic can do it in .5 hours – well he is a master mechanic.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      In both cases they charge you for parts and your choice of labourer is somewhat limited by the fact that you can't really ship your car/washing machine to India for servicing. In the case of car repairs you tend not to stand around watching them to make sure they bill you precisely for each minute either, and it is customary to at least offer the washing machine guy a cup of coffee.

    • by HCase (533294)

      No, you don't pay an actual hourly labor rate at a mechanic. You just don't realize how your bill is determined. For any given repair, the time is determined by an industry standard table. You are billed for the job and the parts, not the actual amount of time the labor took.

      http://www.howtodothings.com/automotive/how-labor-charges-are-calculated [howtodothings.com]

  • My lunch/breaks are unpaid anyway... so what are they stripping away here? But yeah, this amount of micro-managing and bean counting is counterproductive, and just adds a lot of stress and pressure. When they're able to detect it, maybe they'll streamline it further and pay you only for the time that your brain is focused on your work, and pay you based on the percentage of the focus as well.
    • This. And all that will happen is people will put their rates up to account for the difference in take home pay. It's ludicrous because the sites are wasting all their time micro-managing but will end up paying the same.

  • Why is it that when illegal immigrants work for less than minimum wage, it is "essential to the economy" but micro-gigging is a threat to workers rights?
    • by chiefmojorising (114811) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:47PM (#43414059)

      Because illegal labor isn't essential to the economy -- that's just hand-waving, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain bullshit. Well, the labor may well be essential, but not at that price. That whole situation is fucking criminal and should be treated as such, and using it as a basis of comparison is asinine at best.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by PhamNguyen (2695929)
        It is a fair basis for exposing the hypcrisy of the left. They claim that illegal immigrants are essential to the economy because they are willing to work for much lower wages. And yet they oppose measures that would lower working conditions of legal Americans.
        • And for exposing the hypocrisy of the right. So what?

        • by h4rr4r (612664)

          The left?
          I think you mean center right.
          The left wants businesses that pay less than the minimum wage shutdown. If a company is found using illegal labor its doors should barred and forced to not function for some amount of time. Ideally for as many days as they used illegal labor.

        • by Old97 (1341297)
          It also exposes the hypocrisy of the right. They both argue that these folks take jobs Americans don't want. The truth is that these folks accept wages that Americans won't for those jobs. It benefits businesses because illegal immigration and very liberal immigration policies put downward pressure on wages. Somewhere there is a balance between what is fair and what is best for the economy, but neither side cares what that is.
      • by MightyYar (622222)

        We have free flow of goods, and free flow of capital, but not free flow of labor. I can't easily move to Mexico to work, and Mexicans cannot easily move here to work. Thus, if you want to grow apples in the US with it's artificially high wages you will get stomped out of the market by the free-trade apples from China. Our solution thus far has been to exempt apple picking from minimum wage laws, while simultaneously kind of winking at immigration from Mexico and Latin America.

        I tend to favor free trade, sin

  • by ClayDowling (629804) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:41PM (#43413983) Homepage

    On the micro-gig sites, remember that you'll be competing with people who can live quite comfortably on $5/day. If you can live on that, more power to you. Otherwise, you'll want to find other ways to peddle your services.

  • Game the System (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Princeofcups (150855) <john@princeofcups.com> on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:45PM (#43414037) Homepage

    My wife did Mechanical Turk for a few weeks when out of work, and oh boy. The only way to make even minimum wage is to completely game the system. It is supposed to be self quality checking, but that doesn't really work. Her work (writing in this case) was so far above the norm (she did graduate college) that it was off the scales. The max she could make doing honest work was around $3-$4 per hour. Most workers there just spam the system trying to grab jobs that are we few cents more, cut and paste some garbage, rinse and repeat. In other words, you get what you pay for.

    • by Ambvai (1106941)

      I used to do MTurk back in college when it was still in testing and there were numerous scripts that optimized workflow. If the work kept coming in, I could've clocked upwards of 40$/hour. The problem was that were so many people doing it that you could rarely get in more than 5 minutes or so with every batch, with batches only posted every hour.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:52PM (#43414131)

    I make my living as a programmer for hire. Clients find me, ask for the moon, and I give it to them - but my hourly rate only reflects time on task. I don't charge my clients for trips to the water cooler. Unless I'm on site, I average about 6 hours a day. But this can be compensated by the fact you can adjust your own rates. For all the bitching about evil corporations, I'm surprised more people don't start their own S Corp and do this. It's a lot more responsibility, but you are the master of your own fate. (You are still responsible for your own fate when working for a business, but I suppose a lot of people don't see it that way) In fact, you may not even see corporations as all that evil when you're on the other end of the stick.

    • It's because figuring out how to do it, and how to make money doing it, is not easy.
    • by SQLGuru (980662)

      Because I don't want to hunt for gigs. By working for someone else, they bring me work. They also do that boring accounting and payroll work. I get to do the stuff I love and enjoy without having to do the stuff I hate.

    • by spiffmastercow (1001386) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:27PM (#43414543)

      I make my living as a programmer for hire. Clients find me, ask for the moon, and I give it to them - but my hourly rate only reflects time on task. I don't charge my clients for trips to the water cooler. Unless I'm on site, I average about 6 hours a day. But this can be compensated by the fact you can adjust your own rates. For all the bitching about evil corporations, I'm surprised more people don't start their own S Corp and do this. It's a lot more responsibility, but you are the master of your own fate. (You are still responsible for your own fate when working for a business, but I suppose a lot of people don't see it that way) In fact, you may not even see corporations as all that evil when you're on the other end of the stick.

      Mostly it's the lack of health insurance. If we went to a single-payer system, I would be glad to go that route, but I can't risk my kids getting cancer while I'm off being my own boss and not able to afford the $3k/month family health insurance that can drop you for no reason.

  • Race to the bottom (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chirs (87576) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:55PM (#43414173)

    I think we're at the point now where if a job can be digitized and sent elsewhere then it will end up being done by the lowest-overall-cost person (for a given level of quality) regardless of where they are in the world.

    So the only long-term way to make a living is to ensure that you're working on something specialized (so there's less competition), or that you're at the top of the skill heap (so you can charge more), or you're working on something that can't easily be sent elsewhere.

    We're already seeing the Canadian east coast becoming a popular place to locate call centres for North American businesses because they speak good English, the cultural variations are minimal from the rest of North America, and there are fewer timezone issue to worry about (as opposed to India or China).

    • by swillden (191260)

      So the only long-term way to make a living is to ensure that you're working on something specialized (so there's less competition), or that you're at the top of the skill heap (so you can charge more), or you're working on something that can't easily be sent elsewhere.

      I'd call that medium-term, or even short-term, not long-term. Long-term, standard of living and cost of living will equalize worldwide.

      • Long-term, standard of living and cost of living will equalize worldwide.

        And in the long run we're all dead.

  • by bryan1945 (301828) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @12:58PM (#43414221) Journal

    of the tech business. If you're worried about being stiffed or not having benefits, just don't do it. Though this sounds way too annoying to be successful. The 5er stuff might be OK. I'd pay someone $5 for a drawing of a monkey slapping Justin Beiber.

  • Many years ago I did a lot of work on ODesk, started out at about 5-10 dollars an hour, after about 2 months I was able to command $30 an hour easily based upon my high feedback and test scores. It was a pretty sweet gig. Not quite enough to support my family, but plenty as a side gig.

  • The idea that a salaried employee can have his employers (and optionally tax payers) by his balls and squeeze hard to get paid more is quaint, but doesn't apply in most of the real world. Most people in this world actually have to compete in order to make money. You know: bakers, electricians, computer consultants, personal trainers, hairdressers, etc. They work an hour, they get paid an hour. And if they don't work well, they lose customers.

    • The idea that a salaried employee can have his employers (and optionally tax payers) by his balls and squeeze hard to get paid more is quaint, but doesn't apply in most of the real world. Most people in this world actually have to compete in order to make money. You know: bakers, electricians, computer consultants, personal trainers, hairdressers, etc. They work an hour, they get paid an hour. And if they don't work well, they lose customers.

      Yes, but bakers at least get minimum wage. Not so with rent-a-coders.

  • The rise of the micro-gig is very much a sign of the wider deterioration of working conditions. Rights are part of the issue, but the other is that the pay per hour is often pitiful.

    This is another consequence of the neoliberal strategy of keeping a persistent pool of unemployed people. Don't believe government propaganda about wanting everyone in work; full employment in the US and other Western democracies has not been a policy goal since the late 70's.

    Put very very simply, If there are two people for one

  • phenomenon is just another symptom of the failure of modern capitalism in my opinion. although peculiar to the tech industry it seeks to turn a valuable service into a race to the bottom commodity at the expense of human beings much as in every other sector. Other examples are Wal-Mart, which touts health benefits to their full time employees while carefully ensuring nearly everyone is working only 38 hours. or general contractors in texas which skirt employment laws to deliver the lowest cost 3000 square
  • The fallacy here... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ThomasBHardy (827616) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:21PM (#43414489)
    The fallacy of the article is the fundamental assumption that the producer of work is only valid when controlled by the guiding hand of a company.

    Workers rights exist to protect workers from abusive companies. But the case here doesn't even come close to rubbing up against that issue. The Gigers in these cases are able to work as much or as little as they please. No boss is standing behind them abusing them into performing more to justify management's salary or company profit margins.

    Gigers will likely fall into two main groups:
    A) Out of work and struggling to make ends meet.
    This type is probably grateful for a way to make money in a world where there's currently no company to make him "a valuable asset and a productive member of society". No corporate overlord, no workers rights issues. If they dislike this type of work, they can continue seeking a job somewhere or they can learn to do without earning money for other people and keep making direct contacts for work.

    B) People who do gigs on the side. Again, no right issues come up in this case. It's a totally voluntary way to make extra bucks.

    I've used Fiverr to buy about 60 gigs now. In each case they were professional, quick and delivered exactly what they advertised. (in my case almost all were for artistic talent for personal and team building exercises). No company is offering me an equivalent service for less than an absurd amount of money which would have been a non-starter and caused me to engage in zero purchases. Their overhead for profit and management salaries is so high, they price themselves out of the market for what I need.

    Instead of trying to demonize these companies, look at them as a means by which a lot of people are making ends meet while no company is willing to hire them. Life does not require anyone to work for a company. Sure they serve their purposes and for many scales and scopes of work, it takes a company to achieve success. I love the company that I work for. But I do not mistake that for believing that every person alive must either work for a company or earn nothing.

    I'd rather look forward to a day when the gig market evolves and gig companies start offering discount benefit packages to Gigers who perform and produce well. What better way to hold onto good talent for your service.
  • by fascismforthepeople (2805977) <fascismforthepeople@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:25PM (#43414523) Homepage Journal
    We have hardly any left in this country as it is. Every year we strip away further at what used to be worker's rights. Every year we get closer to them having none left at all.

    As we continue to empower the wealthiest at the expense of the least fortunate, we continue to step closer to delivering fascism for the people.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Wednesday April 10, 2013 @01:42PM (#43414695)
    From the Tom Friedman book of that name. You are competing with the entire world's English speakers and internet users. Even if it costs them $5 a day to live versus $50 for you.

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