Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Modern Serfs

"People who work for free are far hungrier than anybody who has a salary, so they're going to outperform, they're going to try to please, they're going to be creative." — Kelly Fallis, chief executive of Remote Stylist.
The above quote comes from this article in Fortune which asks if unpaid jobs are the new normal. Dear god, I hope not. I could be mistaken, but I thought slavery was outlawed.

Yeah, I understand that some college grads will take internships in the hopes of receiving valuable training and "getting their foot in the door." That's fine, but of course, a person who can take such a non-paying job has to already be in some kind of financially stable position (like living with their parents, perhaps).

And while contemplating the article, I remembered that I had worked for free. A friend and I spent a couple of years designing and programming some mobile games. But then that's really not the same, is it? I was working independently in the hopes of pure profits at the end of the road (which never quite materialized).

If I ever had the balls to assume I could hire a staff of fifty to assist me -- without any pay -- hell, I'm sure I could have been way more successful. I could have turned out more products and sucked up all the profit for myself. But that's just not right. I believe the word is "exploitation."

But we are living in anti-labor times now. The Fortune article laments, yes really laments, that using unpaid labor isn't always legal:

Unfortunately for many employers hoping to use unpaid labor to advance their business goals, there are strict federal and state rules that workers must be paid the minimum wage and paid for overtime, and must abide by other provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which applies to about 135 million people working for 7.3 million employers. The FLSA doesn't apply to companies with less than $500,000 in annual revenue unless they engage in interstate commerce -- which can be as little as accepting credit cards or placing phone calls to another state.

The FLSA is there for a reason. In many job sectors a lack of wage laws can create a race to the bottom with each company cutting worker compensation to compete with the other companies that have cut worker compensation. And in the corporate world, that means that every person willing and able to work for free is taking a job away from somebody who needs income.

But now let me make a confession of sorts. It's kind of funny really. Or sad. The last few months I've been working in a "virtual sweatshop." Yes, I've been pimping my human intelligence to Amazon Mechanical Turks. Mostly I've been writing short informative articles for content farmers. I've found the work mostly enjoyable and kind of challenging.

For example, I've written informational pitches for snowboard products, despite the fact that I've never snowboarded, skied or made fluffy snow angels. Talk about creative writing.

But it's not the low pay that makes me creative. And I'm certainly not motivated by hunger. In fact, I can't say I work particularly hard at these assignments. I have no illusions of my work landing me a "real job." For me, as a person with a disability, it's a simple case of accessibility. I browse some HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), click a button, and have an assignment. No commute. No long hours. No job interviews. No coming face-to-face with people's prejudices.

The pay, however, is embarrassing. I could maybe live off of it... if I moved to Zimbabwe. One of my friends suggested that the turkers unionize. I think he was joking, but I'm not sure.


Xuan said...

This is an excellent entry :)

Trung said...

i agree with xuan :)