Work and exploitation in the virtual economy

A brief history of my work as an online contractor and the exploitation inherent within the industry.

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 27, 2014

After reading Wotsits experiences of the Jobcentre, it got me thinking about my own time there too. But I don't really have much to add, in fact mine would be rather tame since I left the Job Centre before they brought most of that stuff in. Though I think I remember some of that stuff being piloted at the time.

But the constant surveillance and mindless bureaucracy reminded me of what I did just after I left. After jotting some stuff down about my experiences I noticed a very eerie similarity to the job structures fantasised about by some AnCaps I stumbled upon awhile ago and it went from there.

I’ve recently been a bit curious and started reading some stuff put out by Anarcho-Capitalists. Didn’t have much of an impact until I read some stuff about the role of the labourer in this new financial paradise, then I was greatly affected. A favourite counter argument to AnCaps is that their perfect world will never happen, this is incorrect it’s happening now, its name is Odesk and it’s a fucking nightmare. I know because for several months I was a member of its Cyber proletariat.

Odesk is a company run out of a website, it boasts that it’s the “largest workplace on the web” and I can believe it. In my time with Odesk I never spoke to anyone in the company so I don’t know about the owner’s motivations beyond getting rich, but after looking back on the site and knowing what I do about AnCap theory it would not surprise me if the site was run by a true believer. If you’re not familiar with Odesk then allow me to explain, it’s the best thing ever for those who have money, it seems tailored made to give sleazy companies access to cheap flexible (Corp speak for vulnerable) Labour while removing every possible constraint on exploitation. The front page actually boasts about such wonderful opportunities in its “Get to Work!” section like

Hire on demand, (that includes fire on demand too)

Build a flexible workforce based on skills, ratings, and reviews.

Those ratings skills and reviews come from the Employers in case you were wondering.

Manage the Work
(Don’t worry you can still be as much of a control freak via the computer)

See Work-in-progress screenshots, timesheets, and daily logs.

Yes signing up to Odesk means agreeing to let random moneymen spy on your home computers.
Refusal to do so after the fact will result in penalties.

Pay with Ease
(Pay whenever you please)

Rest assured with safe global payments and the Odesk Guarantee.

That guarantee is for Employers not you., you’ll get your money if they feel like it.

AnCap theory states that Workers will be better off under their system too, because we will have the freedom to sell our labour for the highest price determined by the market. Well this arrangement already exists and has been a part of our economic system for centuries. It’s called being a Contractor; guess what the official name for those using Odesk for work are called? The way Odesk works is a bit like an owner of a Bazaar, companies use it to hire work- I mean Contractors for pretty much anything that can be done on a computer.

Seriously I mean everything, I saw job offers for ghost writing (mostly erotic stories), website design, even paying for members of forums and retweets and facebook likes. Sounds like easy money, so what’s the problem? Simple really the Boss Worker relationship is exactly the same only anonymised. Under Odesk’s system the boss or “Client” holds all the cards, so long as they don’t displease Odesk that is. In order to get a job no matter what it is you need to compete with other contractors, the ratio of course is heavily skewed in favour of the Clients, there are few of them and they already have money, there are many contractors who have no money, why it’s almost like the real world isn't it.

One of the main things about Odesk that reminded me of AnCap theory was the tests and quizzes section. When you make a profile you have access to a test section on many different subjects, from basic English to programming software, supposedly this is to make you more attractive to potential Clients by doing well on the tests, but I think it’s just a way for Odesk to reassure the Clients that they can deliver qualified Labo- sorry, Contractors.

Acing a few tests (mostly basic reading and writing) certainly made me popular with the Clients, but it had no effect on whether I’d land a job, or on my expected pay packet. All it did was fill up my inbox. Care to guess what did make a difference about getting a job? Undercutting the competition, it worked every time. Here's how the job application process works, imagine an online Job’s board, a Client want’s something done they offer the Job and theoretically explain the job and offer a payment. I say theoretically because every job I did the description was false, and the pay isn’t the wage or commission, it’s actually a statement of how much they’re willing to spend, overall. They attract attention by offering say a hundred dollars for some easy enough work, then the contractors have to apply, and this is where the wolf shows its teeth. As part of your application you have to say how much you’ll work for, everyone who applied before you has there amount offered displayed, so you can undercut them very easily. It’s not a job application it’s a bidding war in reverse.

But that isn’t the end of it though, no you see the Client, or rather a middle man/woman for a Client will look over the bids and the money suggested, they then pick their favourites and offer them an actual contract. Now this contract could have anything written in it, giving consent to any and all whims of the Client, -including agreeing to let them monitor you- the money will often be even less then what you offered, or stretched out over a lot more assignments then originally agreed upon. This is all fine by Odesk because the Job offers where all based on predictions (yeah right). You can accept it and sign up, and you better be fast because they’re almost certainly offering the job to several others, or pass it up. Not only does passing it up mean no money, but you have to give a reason to turn down a job, and the Clients are often repeat customers, turn one down and you may run be turning down dozens of future jobs by accident.

Now if you’re an AnCap you’ll no doubt be busy typing a response to the effect of “no one’s forcing you to sign up” and they are correct, no one person forces me or anyone to take a contract on Odesk. But what did force me to take the jobs I did and even sign up in the first place, is the pressure from the economic system. I was unemployed after another online job ripped me off and desperate for money. This is the cornerstone of economic power; those who have money can exploit those who don’t because the only alternative to the loss of dignity is starvation. Say it with me now “Freedom in Capitalism, is the freedom to choose my Master or starve”.

So Odesk seems just like the real world, and that’s because it mostly is. The only real differences manage to make it worse than in the real world. I worked on that platform for several months during which I endured plenty of abuse and leg pulling by anonymous middle men and women from all over the world; doing useless work for crap pay. And I was completely at their mercy, if a Client wants you to work to their time zone in say Asia forcing you onto unofficial night shifts they can do. Once you’ve signed that contract that’s it, any failure to meet the deadline means a bad review and no money. Even if you manage to meet the deadlines they can still get out of it by pulling the old “This work is not to my satisfaction” without bothering to tell you what standards they do accept. I once had an Indian Client get out of paying me for an advert for Floor Tiles because apparently the Grammar wasn’t very good. The Grammar was fine, I know this because I checked it before sending it in, but how can I prove that when the measure for good/bad is in his head? And on and on it went, and they were all like this, in an attempt to get out of this spiral I started applying almost exclusively for Clients representing charities, no difference. In fact they were probably the worst Clients because every time I asked questions they were not just rude but tried to make me feel guilty.

But that’s just ordinary work griping really. The real danger of Odesk and other Cyber market platforms is this, they eradicate the possibility of organisation (forget hierarchy vs horizontal) and collective action. There is no way to reach out to other contractors, you can message them but what’s the point? We can’t form a Union or an informal staff association, the Labour pool is global in scale and endless, and most of which are all very desperate people trying to make ends meet. It’s like a company town, combined with a cubicle office, only the walls reach the ceiling and are made of cement and there’s no stationary to steal or gates to picket. It’s everything an AnCap dreams of, its real and unsurprisingly it's a Workers Nightmare.



10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Bryan123 on January 27, 2014

wow that's shit.
combine that with the fact the technological changes is doing away with all kids of jobs, and the jobs the remain, have less demand(for example, because of robotic cleaners, there is less demand for cleaners), and more and more jobs can be done anywhere in the world, just sitting in front of the computer, so there is a lot more competition.


10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by CPJ on January 28, 2014

A good topic has been selected and the writing is also outstanding. I enjoyed to read it thoroughly.