Technology increasingly runs through 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 throughout the world through the Internet. Behind, or rather at the bottom of these technological giants, people continue to work who are made invisible by the ease of clicking.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has warned of the danger of creating “digital laborers”, with labor practices more typical of the 19th century, but well packaged with a modern packaging. Spain is at the forefront in the expansion of work on digital platforms, as the country with the most workers (18%) 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 per month” for Facebook moderators
Their eyes are the barrier so that rapes, murders and other abuses do not circulate in the social network with the most users in the world, Facebook. They see those images so that 2.5 billion users don’t have to. They are the content moderators of the giant created by Mark Zuckerberg, who analyze which ones violate the rules to be displayed on Facebook. A total of 15,000 people with their eyes fixed on a computer. “I was earning € 700 net a month for eight hours of work in Warsaw. The goal was to review about 500 profiles a day,” says Javier, a former moderator outsourced through Accenture.
The position sounds “very cool,” says the worker wryly, asking not to reveal his real name. “Data analyst. We had two weeks of paid training, they did not require a degree,” says Javier about what he experienced in the office in the Polish capital. Facebook sources explain that the moderators are spread “in more than 20 sites around the world, including the United States, Germany, Poland, Spain and Portugal.” In recent years they are also investing in “artificial intelligence”, so that algorithms and not people detect these harmful content.
“Javier charged 700 euros a month in Poland with the goal of reviewing the content of 500 Facebook profiles a day. ‘You see a lot of shit. Porn, violence … brutal things. No one lasted more than two years’
With a total of 35 minutes of rest throughout the day, “evidently he ate in front of the computer screen,” Javier maintains. In front of their eyes, a constant stream of videos, photos, profiles and comments on which the moderators must decide in about 30 seconds: if they delete the content or ignore the complaint. Being slow or making a mistake prevents you from collecting the extra targets, which you only receive with “98% quality” in your work. The system “is very precarious, more people would be needed to be able to decide with more time”, laments the former worker. The content can be about insults and impersonated profiles, but also others with great psychological impact. “You see a lot of shit. Porn, violence … Brutal things. Nobody lasted more than two years.”
Accenture made a psychologist available to employees in their office. Psychological support is a requirement that Facebook demands “to ensure the well-being” of these workers, they argue on the social network. “I never went, it didn’t inspire confidence in me. I had worked with the US Marines and I thought I was a snitch, that I wanted to see who was unmotivated, if you criticized the boss … There were colleagues who saw very strong things, especially in the market Arab, they did go, “explains Javier.
Secrecy and severe control measures marked the day to day of the moderator in Warsaw. “It was forbidden even to take the cell phone out of the 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 go from my desk to the kitchen I had to pass it, to go to the bathroom and even to call the elevator. ” All the blinds were completely down 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 with 700 euros a month he could live on his own in Poland, Javier confronts the modest salary of the staff in charge of this key control function for Facebook with the millionaire benefits of the social network. In 2019, it earned almost € 17.1 billion. On Facebook, they say they work “closely” with their partners “to make sure they provide industry-leading pay and benefits.” At Accenture they simply say that they offer “competitive compensation” in all markets. “The worst thing I saw are people who were beheaded and an older man raping a child,” recalls Javier. “You think: maybe they would have to pay more to see this shit.”
Glued to the phone to “hunt” Amazon deliveries
Friday afternoon. The “hunt” arrives. Carolina, as in the heat of competition, does not separate from the mobile. He refreshes the Amazon Flex app over and over again until he finally “hunts down a reservation,” what they call a guaranteed “block” of work the following week delivering packages to the e-commerce giant. “Already catching a block at this point is very complicated. We are many people for the number of blocks that there are. Now we almost only work what they offer us on Fridays,” explains this Venezuelan who, like so many other compatriots, came.
The rhetoric of the ad seems appealing. “Be your own boss and define and plan your schedule,” advertises Amazon Flex. The flexible hours and ease of getting to work led Carolina to deliver packages with her car. You just had to become autonomous, download the company’s application and upload the documents requested by the multinational, such as registration with Social Security and a certificate of absence of criminal records. “I did it all online, I never saw anyone from Amazon,” he says.
Once Amazon validates the account, these freelancers can already collect the cardboard boxes with the famous smile at their stations. The multinational does not provide information on the number of people who distribute in this way. Amazon sources are limited to circumscribing it to “a small percentage of freelancers who collaborate with us.” From her experience, Carolina maintains that there are many freelancers, but not so many hours of work: “Before it was easier, I did a maximum of six four-hour blocks a week. Now hopefully I do three blocks.”
Carolina appreciates “not having a boss and not being enslaved to a fixed schedule.” The limited income that it generates and the continuous uncertainty of whether it will get deliveries nevertheless lead it to be “all day glued to the mobile trying to hunt for hours.” In the end, she admits, “I myself end up working longer hours.” With a “Monday to Monday” working calendar, Carolina delivers on her own for Amazon Flex, through the company Paack, which also has shipments assigned to the American multinational, and with Deliveroo at night and on weekends.
“Now I can make about 700 euros a fortnight, working all day with all the applications,” explains Carolina. From there you have to subtract the gasoline, the payment of the self-employed fee and other expenses. Amazon closed 2019 with an increase in its profits of 15%, to 10,678 million euros. “The issue is that Amazon does not guarantee the job. If it did, it would be great,” says the Venezuelan, who has to cut the conversation. She’s going to deliver first thing in the morning for Paack and then she’s managed to catch a block on Amazon Flex from five-thirty to nine-thirty. “From there I am going to share with Deliveroo, I will arrive … at eleven thirty at night”, she calculates. “You have to look for life.”
The precarious “lifeline” of working without papers at Uber
“Either way, Uber has been a help to us, the emigrants who come to Spain.” Luis works as a deliveryman for Uber Eats, the food delivery platform of the American multinational Uber. For months he did it despite not having a work permit. He arrived as a tourist, requested asylum and obtained the famous red card that is granted to applicants for international protection while the Administration resolves their files. The document allows them to reside in Spain, but they cannot work for six months, something highly criticized by humanitarian organizations. “We have to live on something”, highlights 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 void” through which undocumented migrants can distribute for the multinational. Sometimes it works informally among the couriers, by borrowing their licenses. “When my cousin arrived at the beginning, I gave 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 distribute without being registered. The person in charge of the fleet does not 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 ensures on its website that it requires distributors to identify them, register with Social Security as self-employed and even, depending on the territory, the certificate of criminal records. eldiario.es has asked the multinational about the undocumented delivery men on the platform, but the company has not responded. Uber will go to trial in Madrid this year after an investigation by the Labor Inspectorate that detected dozens of workers without work permits and which concluded that the couriers were false self-employed.
Luis works “from Monday to Monday” and gets about “500 euros a week” from which he has to deduct the self-employed fee, gasoline and taxes. “I was thinking of a freelancer and imagined an entrepreneur, but you are not an entrepreneur when the quarter arrives and you want to run away because it does not reach you,” he laughs. Despite the harsh conditions, “Uber has been a help, I don’t know what all these people would have done without this job,” the Venezuelan resolves. “One’s need is to work.”
The new is not necessarily new, a labor lawyer came to say in a lawsuit against the multinational Deliveroo regarding employment in companies and digital platforms. Labor exploitation, lack of worker security, low wages and false self-employed workers existed before and they do now, but technology sometimes allows us to hide the trail of those responsible.
Carolina says she has no bosses, but for several days she has loaded more Amazon packages than she would like to in her car. “The thing is, if I didn’t do it, the supervisors wanted to open an incident for me and the third you can’t distribute more. I can’t afford it, I need the job.”