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ghost worker

Contributor(s): Kevin Ferguson

1. A ghost worker is someone who is on a company's payroll but does not do any actual work. In some cases, a ghost worker is a real person who has died or otherwise left the company, but their personal data remains in the books. In other cases, the worker is entirely fictitious and their addition to the company's payroll constitutes fraud. 

2. Ghost worker is an emerging class of remote freelance workers who make their living by completing microtasks for cloud providers. Many ghost workers end up earning less than their country's minimum hourly wage because they are only paid for the tasks they complete, regardless of long they work. Also, because they work on a freelance basis, ghost workers do not receive employee benefits. 

The use of ghost worker (sometimes spelled ghostworker) in an outsourcing context was coined by Siddharth Suri and Mary L. Gray in their 2019 book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass. In their book, Gray and Suri explore the social impact of crowdsourcing the manual work required to support artificial intelligence (AI) programming.

The authors conducted hundreds of in-person interviews and more than 10,000 surveys of microtask workers in the United States and India. They found that such work often involves tasks like captioning a series of photos or transcribing 60 seconds of an audio file. They also examined four major on-demand platform businesses, studied their policy landscape, and performed dozens of experiments to understand API-driven office work and how it shapes the lives and productivity of on-demand workers. Some of the ghost workers interviewed by the researchers were employed through the likes of Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Similar platforms are operated by OneSpace's CrowdSource, Upwork and Fiverr.

This was last updated in June 2019

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