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microwork (microtask)

Contributor(s): Kevin Ferguson

Microwork is any microtask that has been outsourced to a decentralized, online workforce. A microtask is a small job that requires a low level of skill and takes minimal time to complete. (The financial remuneration for completing a microtask is also minimal.) Microwork can often be found on crowdsourcing sites such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk (MTurk). Such sites specialize in connecting remote workers with businesses that have need of short-term freelance workers.

Benefits of microwork

For businesses, access to an on-demand labor pool without having to pay healthcare or other benefits is attractive, particularly to information technology (IT) companies, whose work can often be performed remotely.

Microwork can also make the labor market more egalitarian, its advocates say.  The World Bank, as a part of a World Development Report, identified the "top two advantages of working as microworkers are the ability to work from home and the ability "to earn extra money besides regular jobs, with the former being particularly important for women."

Vodi, launched in 2014, is developing what it describes as a "blockchain-based ecosystem" called Vodi X, that targets microworkers. The company is developing the system and expects to roll it out in full force by the end of 2020.

Criticisms of microwork

Siddharth Suri, a computer scientist, and Mary L. Gray, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, studies the phenomenon of microwork in their 2019 book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass. In it they describe isolated, anonymous and often underappreciated tech workers -- whom they called "ghost workers."

The World Bank, which has promoted the idea of microwork, cautions that several impediments are slowing its greater adoption. These include:

  • a language barrier (many microwork job sites are only in English);
  • pay scales -- microworkers in the job site's home country are likely to be paid more than international microworkers;
  • payment systems -- many microworkers in developing countries don't have bank accounts, requiring them to be paid through intermediary means, such as debit cards that can be used at ATMs; Paysafe Group's Skrill e-commerce site; Dwolla e-commerce site (United States only); or through mobile digital tokens, such as those proposed by Vodi.

 

This was last updated in June 2019

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