Journalist Laura Olías tells the stories of Javier, Carolina and Luis, platform workers who have suffered different types of exploitation at the hands of Facebook, Amazon and Uber respectively.
Originally published on ElDiario.es.
The Gig Economy Project has translated it into English
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust
Technology is increasingly permeating our lives. We order food, buy gifts, listen to music, and even flirt through a screen. Thousands of companies do business by providing these facilities and have become huge corporations that deploy their platforms all over the world through the internet. Behind, or rather at the bottom of these technological giants, there are still people working who are made invisible by the ease of the click.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has warned of the danger of creating “digital day labourers”, with labour practices more typical of the 19th century, but well packaged in a modern-day wrapper. Spain is at the forefront of the expansion of work on digital platforms, being the country with the most platform workers (18 per cent) and where they increased the most from 2017 to 2018, according to a recent study for the European Commission. But how do the algorithm workers work? Javier, Carolina and Luis tell us about their experiences in three of the largest technology multinationals: Facebook, Amazon, and Uber.
“700 euros a month” for Facebook moderators
Their eyes are the barrier to the circulation of rape, murder and other abuses on the world’s most widely used social network, Facebook. They see those images so that 2.5 billion users don’t have to. They are the moderators of content on the platform giant created by Mark Zuckerberg, analysing which posts break Facebook’s rules. A total of 15,000 people are staring at a computer.
“I charged €700 net per month for eight hours of work in Warsaw. The goal was to check about 500 profiles a day,” says Javier, a former sub-moderator through Accenture. The position sounds “very cool”, says the worker with irony, who asks not to reveal his real name. “Data analyst. We had two weeks of paid training, we were not required to have a degree,” says Javier about what he experienced in the office in the Polish capital.
Facebook sources explain that the moderators are distributed “in more than 20 sites around the world, including the United States, Germany, Poland, Spain and Portugal”. In recent years they have also been investing in “artificial intelligence”, so that it is algorithms and not people who detect this harmful content.
With a total of 35 minutes of rest throughout the day, “obviously I ate in front of the computer screen,” says Javier.
In front of his eyes, a constant stream of videos, photos, profiles and comments about which the moderators must decide in about 30 seconds: whether to remove the content or ignore the complaint. Being slow or mistaken prevents them from meeting performance targets, which they only receive with “98 per cent quality” in their work.
The system “is very precarious, it would take more people to be able to decide with more time,” laments the former worker. The content can be insults and impersonated profiles, but also others with a strong psychological impact. “You see a lot of shit. Porn, violence…Brutal stuff. No one could stand it for more than two years.”
Accenture made a psychologist available to employees in their office. Psychological support is a requirement of Facebook “to ensure the well-being” of these workers, the company states.
“I never went there, I didn’t feel confident. I had worked with the US Marines and thought I was a snitch, that they wanted to see who was unmotivated, if you criticised the boss…There were colleagues who saw very strong things, especially in the Arab market, who did go,” explains Javier.
Secrecy and severe control measures marked the moderator’s day-to-day life in Warsaw. “It was forbidden to even take out a mobile phone from one’s pocket. In each team, there was a mole who informed the superiors. We had cameras and an access card that you used all the time. To get from my desk to the kitchen I had to pass it, even to go to the bathroom or call the elevator. All the blinds were completely lowered so that nothing could be seen from the outside. In the contract you sign confidentiality for two years, you can’t tell what you work on or your family. You look like a CIA spy,” Javier jokes.
Although at €700 a month he could live on his own in Poland, Javier contrasts the modest salary of the staff in charge of this key control function for Facebook with the million-dollar profits of the social network. In 2019, Facebook earned almost €17.1 billion. On Facebook, they say they work “closely” with their partners “to ensure they provide the pay and benefits that lead the industry”. At Accenture, they simply say they offer “competitive compensation” in all markets.
“The worst thing I’ve seen is people being decapitated and an old man raping a child,” Javier recalls. “You think: maybe they would have to pay more to see this shit.”
Sticking to the phone to “hunt” Amazon deliveries
Friday afternoon. The “hunt” is coming. Carolina, in the middle of the competition, does not separate from the mobile. She refreshes the Amazon Flex application over and over again until she finally “hunts a reserve”, which they call a “block” of guaranteed work the following week delivering packages for the e-commerce giant.
“Already catching a block at this point is very complicated. There are too many people for the number of blocks there are. Now we almost only work what they offer us on Fridays,” explains the Venezuelan who, like so many other compatriots, came to Spain to rebuild her life.
The rhetoric in the ad seems appealing. “Be your own boss and define and plan your schedule,” advertises Amazon Flex. The flexible schedule and ease of starting work was what led Carolina to deliver packages with her car. All she had to do was become self-employed, download the company’s application and upload the documents required by the multinational, such as registration with Social Security and a certificate of absence of criminal records.
“I did it all on the internet, I never met anyone from Amazon,” she says.
Once Amazon validates the account, these self-employed delivery people can pick up the cardboard boxes at their stations with the famous smile. The multinational does not provide information on the number of people who deliver in this way. Amazon sources limit themselves to “a small percentage of freelancers who collaborate with us”.
From her experience, Carolina says that there are many freelancers, but not that many hours of work: “Before it was easier, I did the maximum of six four-hour blocks a week. Now, hopefully, I’m doing three blocks.”
Carolina is grateful “not to have a boss and not to be enslaved to a fixed schedule”. The limited income that she generates and the continuous uncertainty of whether she will get deliveries, however, lead her to be “stuck on her cell phone all day trying to hunt for hours”. In the end, she admits, “I end up working more hours myself”.
With a “Monday to Monday” work schedule, Carolina delivers on her own for Amazon Flex, through the company Paack, which also has shipments from the U.S. multinational, and with Deliveroo at nights and weekends.
“Now I can make about €700 every two weeks, working all day with all the applications,” explains Carolina. From that she has to subtract the petrol, the payment of the self-employed quota and other expenses. Amazon closed 2019 with a 15 per cent increase in profits, up to €10.7 billion.
“The thing is that Amazon doesn’t guarantee you a job. If it did, it would be great,” says the Venezuelan, who has to cut the conversation short. She is going to hand out first thing for Paack and then she has managed to catch a block at Amazon Flex from 5.30-9.30pm.
“From there I’m going to deal with Deliveroo, I’ll be there…at 11.30 at night,” she calculates. “You have to make a living.”
The precarious “lifeline” of working without papers in Uber
“Uber has been a help to us emigrants arriving in Spain.” Luis works as a delivery man for Uber Eats, the home delivery platform of the American multinational Uber. For months he did this despite not having a work permit. He arrived as a tourist, applied for asylum and obtained the famous red card that is granted to applicants for international protection while the administration resolves their cases. The document allows them to reside in Spain, but for six months they cannot work, something that humanitarian organisations have been highly critical of.
“We have to live on something,” says the delivery man.
“Venezuelan friends told me about Uber.” Luis does not know how the system works, but he does know that there is a “vacuum” through which undocumented migrants can deliver for the multinational. Sometimes it works informally among the distributors, by borrowing each other’s licenses.
“When my cousin first arrived, I left him mine from Uber,” he says.
At other times, there is a more sophisticated system. “There are fleet owners in Uber with whom you can deal without being discharged. The fleet manager doesn’t ask you for papers, you work as an extension of his account and then you pay him a small percentage of what you earn,” says Luis.
Uber Eats assures on its website that it requires the delivery drivers to identify themselves, register with the Social Security as self-employed and even, depending on the territory, a certificate of criminal record. Eldiario.es has asked the multinational about the paperless delivery drivers within the platform, but the company has not responded. Uber will go on trial in Madrid this year after a Labour Inspectorate investigation detected dozens of workers without work permits and concluded that the couriers were false self-employed.
Luis works “from Monday to Monday” and gets about “€500 a week” from which he has to deduct the quota for self-employed workers, petrol and taxes.
“I was thinking of a self-employed person and imagining an entrepreneur, but you’re not an entrepreneur when the quarter comes around and you want to run away because you don’t get it,” he says, laughing. In spite of the hard conditions, “Uber has been a help, I don’t know what all these people would have done without this job”, resolves the Venezuelan. “One’s need is to work.”
‘What is new is not necessarily new,’ said a labour lawyer in a lawsuit against the multinational Deliveroo regarding employment in companies and digital platforms. Labour exploitation, lack of security for workers, low wages and false self-employment existed before and do so now, but technology sometimes allows the trail of those responsible to be camouflaged.
Carolina says she has no bosses, but several days she has loaded more Amazon packages than she would like into her car.
“It’s just that, if I didn’t do it, the supervisors would open a case on me and on the third time you can’t hand out any more. I can’t afford it, I need the job.”