THE BRAZILIAN WORKERS IN AMAZON MECHANICAL TURK: Dreams and
realities of ghost workers
Universidade de São Paulo (USP) – São Paulo, SP, Brazil.
E–mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8938-5004.
Universidade de Aarhus (AU) – Aarhus, Midtjylland,
E–mail: email@example.com. ORCID:
Fabio G. Cozman
Universidade de São Paulo (USP) – São
Paulo, SP, Brazil.
E–mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4077-4935.
Contributing to research on digital platform labor in the Global
South, this research surveyed 149 Brazilian workers in the Amazon Mechanical
Turk (AMT) platform. We begin by offering a demographic overview of the
Brazilian turkers and their relation with work in general. In line with
previous studies of turkers in the USA and India, AMT offers poor working
conditions for Brazilian turkers. Other findings we discuss include: how a
large amount of the respondents affirmed they have been formally unemployed for
a long period of time; the relative importance of the pay they receive to their
financial subsistence; and how Brazilian turkers cannot receive their pay
directly into their bank accounts due to Amazon restrictions, making them
resort to creative circumventions of the system. Importantly, these “ghost
workers” (Gray & Suri, 2019) find ways to support each other and
self-organize through the WhatsApp group, where they also mobilize to fight for
changes on the platform. As this type of work is still in formation in Brazil,
and potentially will grow in the coming years, we argue this is a matter of
platform labor; Amazon Mechanical Turk; Global South; Brazil; digital capitalism.
Introduction: the ghost
In her presentation The Labor that Makes AI Magic at the AI
Now seminar in the White House, Lilly Irani (2016) wrote on her first slide, in
capital letters: “ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. IT'S MADE OF PEOPLE.” Irani’s
intention in highlighting this sentence was to emphasize a concern rarely
raised by the technology industry: the operation of automated technological
systems, such as artificial intelligence, depends on a vast human workforce (El
Maarry et al., 2018; Gray & Suri, 2019). Besides the
highly-visible human labor that legitimates AI (specialized and well-paid
workers such as engineers, designers, programmers, computer scientists,
statisticians), there is – several “floors” down – a more precariously
organized labor force. This army of people are defined by Mary L. Gray and
Siddharth Suri (2019) as ghost workers: responsible for “the human labor
powering many mobile phone apps, websites, and artificial intelligence systems
[which] can be hard to see. In fact, it’s often intentionally hidden” (p. 7).
Ghost work marks the irony of doing a form of labor that is at the same time
increasingly prevalent, but hidden away from view. In today’s growing gig
economy ghost workers sell their labor as tasks or services in platform-based
In this article, we are interested in a specific type of ghost
workers, those who perform microtasks in the Amazon Mechanical Turk marketplace
(hereinafter referred to as AMT). The AMT worker, a prototypical form of crowdworker,
is often simply referred to as a turker. The word “turker” is due to a
machine created by Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen called The Turk,
and supposedly able to play chess. In fact the apparent automated behavior was
controlled by a person hidden inside the box. Kempelen traveled across Europe
with his machine in the XVIII century – an ode to intelligent machines, but in
fact enabled by human exploitation performed as an entertaining game (see
Aytes, 2012). Today, the logic of the invisible worker remains the same, but no
longer in the form of a public show and on a scale of another magnitude.
The turkers in AMT are responsible for performing microtasks that
computers cannot do efficiently, which are known as Human Intelligence Tasks
(HITs). These are varied, and can be things
such as transcribing texts, searching for information on the web, responding to
surveys, and describing images for projects such as ImageNet (Gershgorn, 2017). Microwork, the labour of performing
microtasks, is not a unique feature of AMT, as there are many other platforms
that compete for this digital piecework market.
As can be seen in Fig. 1, from Anatomy of an AI System (Crawford
& Joler, 2018), ghost work is used in developing the Amazon Alexa AI. These
workers are represented in the "Unpaid or Low paid labour" section,
and may include crowdworkers (such as Turkers) and other forms of outsourced
labor. They are not the only workforce involved in training the datasets, but
their level of payment and involvement sets them on a social scale totally
separate from "Professionals," such as engineers and developers. In
essence, turkers are one of the human intelligence layers that turn
“unintelligent computing machines” (Broussard, 2019) into “intelligent
machines”. As described by Irani (2016), “automation doesn’t replace labor. It
Figure 1 - Detail of the anatomy of the Amazon Echo and its AI systems,
where turkers are mentioned as crowdworkers, under “Unpaid or Low paid
labour”. From: Crawford & Joler (2018).
To contribute to critical studies of digital platform labor and
those who show that platforms are not neutral, but opaque (Silva, 2019), we
focus on a particular context: that of Brazilian turkers. This specific Global
South context is underdiscussed, as turkers from the USA and India are more
discussed due to being particularly numerous and representative in the
As Brazil goes through an economic crisis with substantial
unemployment (12.8 million unemployed citizens; IBGE, 2019), a significant part
of the Brazilian population looks for income through the gig economy, as seen
in the boom of delivery and ridesharing workers. In
this context of unemployment/informal work, and following the logic that a
crisis situation makes workers accept work under “early industrial conditions”
(Fuchs, 2014), we suppose that the number of Brazilian ghost workers is bound
to increase. It is thus quite important to understand who they are, how they
see the digital labor they perform in the AMT platform, and how they are
organizing to fight for their rights. Likewise, as a critical study, we
consider it essential to give visibility to how these Brazilian turkers face
the challenges posed by an unregulated digital platform labor. As stated by one
of our respondents:
We definitely need to be heard. I think a lot is said about AI,
but little about us [turkers], which made this area and its applications feasible.
I exist and I want you and others to know that.
research questions that guided our survey study were directly related to the
turkers’ plea for recognition: Who are the Brazilian Amazon Mechanical Turkers?
What is their work like, and what conditions do they face that may make their
work more difficult? How do they see AMT, and what role does it take in their
life? What is specific to Brazilian turkers, if they are compared to those from
this article with an overview of AMT and its operation, including the
challenges that workers in the platform face globally. We then go on to explain
the methodology for the study, which has consisted primarily of a survey of
Brazilian turkers that self-organize through a WhatsApp group. Next, we present
the findings of the survey, which focuses on the Brazilian turkers, their labor
culture, and their self-organization outside of AMT. As we further argue in the
conclusion, the position Brazilian turkers assume involves an overlaying of
challenges that makes them into an “under-underclass” – since, as we will
show, the difficulties they have to receive money for their work makes them
even more exploited than most other turkers.
Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT): global digital platform labor
Before looking into Brazilian turkers in AMT, it is necessary to
overview the challenges it poses for turkers and researchers globally. Even
though it's not just Amazon that mediates the relationship between ghost
workers and requesters (those businesses and individuals who pay for
tasks), AMT is considered to be the largest digital labor platform for
micro-tasks – Clickworker, Figure Eight, Fiverr and JobBoy are some of its
competitors. As discussed by previous studies of turkers (e.g. Hara et al.,
2019; Ipeirotis, 2010; Ross et al., 2010; Gray & Suri, 2019), work in the
AMT marketplace is marked by a global and dispersed workforce that is
anonymous, receives no context for the tasks they perform, and receives low
payments for their labor.
A survey by Difallah et al. (2018) shows that 75% of turkers are
from the United States, 16% from India, and the remaining 9% from all other
countries. According to Amazon, there are 500,000 AMT registered workers (AMT,
2019b), and Ipeirotis estimates that 2,000 to 5,000 workers can be found on the
platform at any
time (apud Gray & Suri, 2019, ebook). It should
be noted that none of these numbers are completely reliable, due to the opacity
of the platform and the difficulty for researchers to survey it – results vary
significantly across studies and the years that they were published.
Besides being a global workforce, turkers are also dispersed, as
they are not offered any formal way of communicating and organizing through the
platform, and do not need to communicate or cooperate to complete the tasks.
This makes it difficult to have any form of social support from other turkers,
and for mobilization to happen (e.g. to improve
working conditions). Turkers, activists and academics have formed independent
organizations and initiatives that have sought to change this situation, such
as Turkopticon (Irani & Silberman, 2013), TurkerNation (Zyskowski &
Milland, 2018), MTurkForum and ExperimentalTurk. These forums, alongside other
communication platforms used by turkers, have been shown to enable a “substantial
communication network within the crowd” (Yin et al., 2016). This shows that,
although AMT doesn’t support workers’ organizational endeavors, they still
operate and support each other as a network.
The tasks turkers perform in AMT are given without any specific
context or specification of what this labor makes possible. A task such as, for
example, “Trace Object Boundaries,” is given just a brief and direct set of
instructions. Almost none of the tasks have indications as to which digital
infrastructures it serves, or the studies it makes possible. This situation
seems to be a practical case of what Marx (2010) calls the externalization (entausserung)
of labor that makes not only work become something with external existence (aussern),
but also that it exists outside the creator (ausser ihm) – creating a
new working class Antunes (2019) calls “infoproletariat” or “cyberproletariat”
(see also Grohmann, 2018).
The human computation of AMT relies on the invisibility of the
workers to make it possible (Irani & Silberman, 2013). Programmers access
turkers through the use of impersonal Application Programming Interfaces
(APIs), in which workers are represented as an impersonal string of characters,
instead of a name (Silberman et al., 2010). This dehumanized zone (Gray and
Suri, 2019) makes the turkers appear in the context of “a new general
industrial base in the cloud” (Finn, 2017, p. 327), thus “abstract[ing]
physical and cultural infrastructure away altogether” (ibid). The effect such
anonymity provides has been likened to a gamification process (Finn, 2017).
The most pressing issue of AMT, as defined both by turkers and
researchers, is the value of compensation for the tasks performed. Requesters
are given complete freedom when setting the value paid per task, and Amazon
does not regulate the market in any way – in fact, there often are tasks that
pay just 0.01 cents for minutes of work. Although some research shows that
turkers often have motivations that may not be direct financial gain or
subsistence pay (Ross et al., 2010), workers from the Global South may be more
dependent in using AMT as a primary income source, leading to a form of
inequality (ibid; Hara et al., 2019; see also Aytes, 2012).
Although all of these challenges are frequently raised by turkers,
researchers and activists, AMT is intentionally positioned as a “lean
platform”, enabling the outsourcing of workers as “independent contractors”
while having no liability for the work they do (Srnicek, 2017, ebook; see also
Gillespie, 2010). An example of this is that, according to its FAQ, it’s
important for turkers to be careful of scams and phishing attempts, “because
AMT isn’t directly involved in the creation of HITs posted by Requesters” (AMT,
2019a). This position as an unaccountable platform is directly tied to a
“neoliberal system of exception facilitated by digital networks, taking
advantage of legal gray zones in the international labor regulations in order
to maximize profits for multinational corporations” (Aytes, 2012; see also Ong,
and surveying a community of Brazilian turkers
Our main method of data collection was a 72-question survey
answered by Brazilian turkers, published in early June 2019 as a task on AMT.
The survey took inspiration from previous research on turkers in different
countries, focusing on demographic profile (e.g. Ipeirotis, 2010; Berinsky,
Huber and Lenz, 2012; Ross, Irani, Silberman, et. al., 2010; Milland, Hara,
Adams, et. al., 2019). It also asked other open-ended questions to more broadly
understand their labor and culture. We paid 4.50 US dollars for each turker to
answer a survey that took about 15 minutes to complete –a value proportionally
higher than the minimum wage in the USA and Brazil. This process
was developed in accordance with the guidelines of TurkerNation, a Turker-led
community on Reddit. The survey was completely in Portuguese, and the responses
have been translated to English in this article.
The main difficulty of this research process was finding the
Brazilian turkers. Although it is possible to filter the location of the
turkers who are allowed to do a task in AMT, we chose not to do this in order
to also include Brazilians who eventually live outside of Brazil or that may be
somehow faking their location. In our test survey, which used a different
method for restricting access, a Brazilian turker offered to include us in the
“MTurk” group on the messaging app WhatsApp. As this group was composed only of
Brazilian participants, we used the group to share the task, and thereby were
able to receive the responses of 149 Brazilian turkers. All of the respondents
were verified as participants in the WhatsApp group. Our
sample, although of limited size and not created through probability sampling,
is particularly unique (there has been no previous study that focused
specifically on the Brazilian turkers). The WhatsApp group (which was one of
the largest and most influential used by Brazilian turkers) also allowed us to observe the Brazilian turkers
communicate over a six month period in 2019. This permitted better
understanding their work routines, self-organization, and challenges in more
granular detail. We used WhatsApp and email to ask further questions to 21 out
of the 149 turkers, aiming to better understand some of their responses.
We received informed consent from all participants, and always
identified ourselves as the authors of an academic research on the Brazilian
workers in AMT when observing and interacting on the WhatsApp message group. We
also preserved the Worker IDs and real names of participants, ensuring their
anonymity. This research aims to address the concerns brought up by the
Brazilian Turkers, thus adopting an activist stance of shedding light into the
problems and questions posed by these participants. For those reasons, although
we find the use of the AMT platform and the sharing of information on these
workers potentially problematic, we understand that sharing their dreams and
realities is ethical as it supports the workers’ pleas for recognition, and
increases accountability of the platform and requesters.
Understanding the Brazilian turkers: Between the promise of easy
money and the real difficulties of getting paid
In order to understand the Brazilian turkers and their relation
with the AMT digital labor marketplace, we begin by analyzing their demographic
composition, and what is their relation with work in general.
Most of the Brazilian turkers respondents to the survey are white
(64%) and male (66.4%), with an average age of 29 years old. The number of
mixed race (“parda”) and black (“preta”) are respectively 21.5% and 12.7%. The
racial composition of the turkers is quite different from that of the general
population of Brazil, which is 45.2% white, 45% mixed and 8.8% black, according
to IBGE (2015). Regarding religion, 43% of respondents Turkers are Catholic,
while 29% declare themselves as non-religious and 18% as evangelicals. The
number of non-religious is particularly high, as across the Brazilian
population that number is around only 8% (IBGE, 2010). As shown in Map
1, almost all Brazilian turkers surveyed reside in Brazil,
especially in the southeast region.
Map 1 - Answers to the question “In which country, city, and state do
you live in?”.
Brazilian turkers work on the platform, per week, an average of around 17
hours and a median of 10 hours. The majority of the workers (around 63% of
them) work below 18 hours a week. This is particularly meaningful considering a total of 57% of the Brazilian turkers have some kind of
work outside of the AMT platform. Of this total, 28.9% claim to have a formal
contract and 23.5% identify themselves as self-employed (Graphic
1). When asked about how much experience they have with AMT, 52.3%
have been working on the platform for less than two months – indicating that
this type of work is a recent reality in Brazil (Graphic
Graphic 1 - Answers to the questions “Do you have another type of work?”
and “What’s your work condition?”.
Graphic 2 - Answers to the question “How long have you worked on AMT?”.
A total of 44% of participants said they work for some other
microwork and/or crowdwork service, indicating that Amazon's platform is just
one of many other possible platforms of digital labor Brazilian turkers use.
Clickworker and Appen were the two most cited companies, followed by Figure
Eight and Uber.
About 43% of the surveyed turkers have no other job than crowdwork
services. From those, 66,1% have
not had a formal job for over a year (Graphic 3). This high number of turkers who have been unemployed for a long
amount of time shows how AMT is an option for the so-called “desalentados,” a
growing mass of Brazilians who, discouraged from the continuous frustration of
searching for jobs, gives up on looking for a formal occupation. In May 2019,
according to the IBGE, the “desalentados” correspond to 4.9 million people in
Brazil, the highest amount since they started to be tracked in 2016.
Graphic 3 - Time unemployed – Answers to the questions “Do you have another
type of work?”, and “Since when have you been unemployed?” (Total answers: 62
out of 149 total)
In line with this high number of turkers who find themselves
outside of the formal job market, around a third (31%) of them are either
completely or partially reliable on AMT “to make ends meet” (Graphic
4). This number is similar to the results
found by Ross et al. (2010) with Indian workers, and is much higher than those
found among U.S. turkers (14%). Further complicating this dependency on AMT is
the fact that, when given just two options, 54.4% of Brazilian respondents feel
that they do not receive a fair pay for the work done in AMT, while the rest
(45.6%) believe that the compensation is satisfactory. This leads to the conclusion that workers from Brazil (and
potentially other Global South countries) are unequally dependent on these
platforms for their living, while still receiving a very low pay.
Also it's important to highlight that Brazilian turkers receive
payment in dollars, which means a currency exchange from a strong currency (US
Dollar) to a more devalued one (Brazilian Real). For this reason, it is very
common to read celebrations in the WhatsApp group when the dollar is most
valued in Brazil, due to political or economic events, which means that turkers
can receive more for their work. This currency fluctuation may cause
differences in over 10% from one day to the other, and even more from week to
week. This reliance on a separate infrastructure of currency fluctuation adds
further risk to the turker’s labor.
Graphic 4 - Answers to the question “The money I earn on AMT is...?”
opportunities, and the rhetoric of “hard work never fails”
The context of increasing unemployment in Brazil is one of the
reasons that makes the complicated labor conditions of AMT alluring to the
turkers. 42% of respondents said that they frequently search the web for
“online jobs,” “extra income,” “how to make money without working away from
home,” and other queries related to digitally-mediated financial gain. As part
of this context of avid search for opportunities, they encounter AMT as a
flexible platform to work from their own homes.
Once given this opportunity, the Brazilian turkers try to make
their best to make AMT a sustainable workplace, including by supporting each
other as a community. During the observation of the WhatsApp group, a welcoming
ritual became visible when new participants join the group and introduce
themselves as newcomers. Most often, a veteran immediately replies with a
message such as: “Welcome!! Focus and believe in yourself. With that, you will
make money here. God bless you!!”
This rhetoric that blends entrepreneurship with elements of
religiosity and self-help appears often in how turkers describe their work in
the platform. In one of our survey questions, we
presented the figure of god Atlas carrying a globe (Image
1). We asked participants to explain if the
image (presented without any caption) had anything to do with what they do in
AMT, and how – an intentionally open question. About 45% of the turkers
directly associated this figure's effort to carry the world on their backs with
the work they do there. Most, however, distanced themselves from such
association, employing ideas of overcoming adversity, and a logic of
entrepreneurship and pride of one’s own effort:
“Hard work never fails”;
“Slavery? Well, I'm not forced, so no, I do it on my own”;
“No, because I'm doing it willingly, so I can't complain about the
weight or the difficulty”;
“I think HITs are a test of resistance, because most give up in
the first week as they think the pennies are worthless”;
“I want more jobs so I can live my life in style”;“I hope to
continue to prosper... always moving on forward…”.
Image 1 - After
an insurgency, Atlas was punished by Zeus for carrying the world and his
knowledge. Its history is associated with the excess of obligations and tasks
that we are constantly submitted to.
These and other responses often mention the idea that the turkers
are part of the future of work, which they identify as a source of pride and
satisfaction. Such belonging to a community of workers of the future is
presented as a benefit, even if clearly conforms and accepts the harsh reality
imposed by AMT and its rules:
“Flexibility is the future”;
“Technology is a part of our human life. We must accept this”;
“The world is changing, like a new industrial revolution, we are
making it happen here on amazon [AMT]”;
“You have access to new technologies that will be increasingly
present in people's lives”;
“I strongly believe in artificial intelligence and it is an honor
to be able to help in a certain way”;
“I have adhered to a working model that will be common in the
We contacted this last turker to better understand if this feeling
of being in a job that might be common in the future is a reason to be proud:
I will not write here that it is easy work. But as I am a big fan
of sci-fi, I also often think that it is at least very cool to know that
machines are getting smarter because of me. Of course a minimal part, but still
We then asked this turker if such a feeling of pride in being
partly responsible for an intelligent machine would be greater if their work
was more valued and well paid:
“This is an interesting point. One day I wondered how interesting
it would be if I could receive not only cash payments but courses, to make me
smarter and thus contribute to an even better technology. It would be nice if I
were seen as a teacher – not that a teacher is highly valued in Brazil, but it
should. A teacher of machines...”.
Although these workers often endure long work hours and low pay,
they adopt a view that they are part of a growing, future-oriented,
entrepreneurial type of digital labor. Ghost work is defined as a highly
alienated type of work (in Marx's sense), but workers still find and construct
for themselves notions, however small, of belonging in a community, purpose,
and a certain hope and optimism for a technological future.
Contradictions of a semi
conscious work and its domestic scenario
There is a certain paradox about whether or not turkers see
themselves as workers. When asked directly about this, the vast majority tend
to agree that what they do is work. In one section of the questionnaire, we
asked them to respond to the statement “What I do in Amazon Mechanical Turk is
a type of work” (Graphic 5). The
average degree of agreement was 2.1, a significant proportion (47%) totally
agree, followed by 18.8% who mostly agree. Only 5.4% totally disagreed with the
idea that their actions on the platform can be considered a type of work,
indicating that there is a strong agreement with the phrase.
Graphic 5 - Responses to the phrase “What I do in Amazon Mechanical Turk is
a type of work”. From a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “Totally agree”, and 5
This level of agreement with AMT being a form of work, however, is
not as strongly found when we analyze answers to other questions that associate
the platform with labor issues and rights. When asked whether the absence of
regulatory laws on AMT (besides the Amazon Terms of Service) is fair, 54.4% of
Brazilian turkers responded “yes”. This majority seems to accept current
regulatory conditions which privilege the AMT requesters in expense of workers
such as themselves. Although this is an interesting finding, it makes sense in
light of the larger cultural scenario in Brazil: 41.4% of the employed
population is working informally (PNDA Contínua, 2019), and a part of the
population supports a government that promises the reduction of labor rights to
generate more jobs.
Another aspect that complicates the understanding of AMT as a type
of work is its domestic scenario and the flexibility it offers. When asked to
"Look at an object near you and answer: what do you see?” all the answers
obtained indicate that they work in their own homes, surrounded by many types
of personal objects:
“I see a cerial [cereal] bowl my cigar box my phone and some
family photos next to my computer tower”;
“The television controller”;
“The image of an Orixá, Oxumare”;
“A picture of Jesus”.
Reinforcing this casual and flexible work environment, Brazilian
turkers responded that they also do other things while working in AMT. 38.3%
claim to watch TV, Netflix or YouTube content while performing HITs. As one
Brazilian turker replied: "This is a typical job for an increasingly
multitasking world. Work and play are now more mixed than ever.” As many other
studies of turkers show (Gray & Suri, 2019; Hara et al., 2019), some
Brazilians also seem to like what they do because they can stay at home performing
HITs, thus avoiding traffic, taking care of family members, or enjoying time
flexibility. An example of this is a Brazilian turker who pointed out that AMT
is "a way to earn money because I have a small child and prefer to stay
with him to provide better care."
Levels of understanding of
support to technological systems
In the survey, we asked questions to understand how much these
Brazilian workers felt part of building and maintaining technological systems,
including those of AIs. About 10% categorically said they could not explain how
their role in Amazon Mechanical Turk is associated with technology. The rest
(90%) responded quite differently, suggesting different levels of understanding
their support to technological systems. Some of these answers were succinct,
such as one of the Brazilian turkers who defined themselves as a "pawn of
technology". Other more detailed accounts include:
“I label and help AI machines examine data from my work, so I'm
helping the world to be more digital”;
“Ah, purely data analysis right. Sometimes it takes a helping hand
for technology to be able to analyze everything, because bots confuse a lot.
These days I did one [task] to analyze some computer-made 3D humans and my God,
if there was no one [human] to judge, it would generate a very ridiculous
“I believe this is a way of studying our behaviors and abilities
as a human”.
Our survey asked the turkers, on a scale of 1 (“Not
at all responsible”) to 5 (“Very
responsible”), how much they feel responsible for the operation and
implementation of AI in the current world. 28.9% understand they are very responsible,
followed by 25.5% of them who said they’re partially
responsible, which demonstrates a considerable level of agreement (Graphic
Graphic 6 - Responses to the question “Do you feel part of the functioning
and implementation of Artificial Intelligences in the current world?”
We also asked the turkers to justify their choice in a written
answer. These responses show how often these turkers actually recognize their
labor as part of something larger:
“uehuehuehuehuehuehuehueheuhe [long laugh], it's a silly little
pride I feel, but it's true. I find it a good motivation to keep doing this
“Without our work much would not advance in the creation and
improvement of technology”;
“It is the humans behind the data that make the data generate the
automations used in AI”;
“We are somehow contributing to patterns of behavior and psyche.
Artificial intelligences will be based on the common sense of these behaviors”;
“Because I explain everything to the machines”.
Other responses reveal that some Brazilian turkers feel
responsible, but much more moderately, feeling like what they do is a very tiny
part of the overall AI development:
“We just give a little help”;
“In some ways I have some importance, although it's only one of
thousands (or millions)”.
Finally, some respondents do not feel at all responsible for the
operation and implementation of AIs, because they do not feel fully trained for
“I am not a scientist”;
“I contribute in some way because I use the systems, so it keeps
learning from what I research and etc., but I do not participate effectively,
because I do not develop such software”;
“Actually I do not understand artificial intelligence”;
“It would be implemented without my help”.
Responses like these are directly associated with the fact that
the vast majority of tasks in AMT do not explain what they are used for, be it
AI applications or any other services and studies – as discussed previously in
Various jobs, whatever the
cost may be
In the survey, we asked what was the strangest and most
interesting task these Brazilian turkers had completed in the platform. This
helps to understand more accurately the daily work of turkers: a day composed
of many different and diverse tasks. The HITs they described are an immense set
of peculiar actions:
“Analyze images of zebras; play video games for 1 hour”; “repeat
what the voice of google and alexa say”; “watch movies and rate them”;
“identify flowers and fruits in Brazilian plants”; “draw boxes on lab rats in
different pictures”; “mark body parts of people fighting”; “answer true or
false on a questionnaire about marijuana”; “mark which employees in photos were
wearing helmets”; “locate hard-to-find business addresses on their original
websites”; “make facial expressions on the computer camera”; “map furniture and
floors in a kitchen”; “modify phrases in the imperative such as "play pagode
[Brazilian genre] music" to "press play to pagode music in the living
room"”; “rate tweets on twitter”; “transcribe commercial receipts”;
“describe what you see in a photo of Tom Hanks”; “take pictures of one’s eyes”;
“film 40 hand gestures”; “dance in front of the camera”; “count how many grains
of corn were in a corn cob”; etc.
In addition to this diversity, some of the responses about the
work done at AMT indicates a work environment replete with tasks that can, in
the long run, have negative health consequences for these workers. These can
include problems such as invasions of privacy and exposure to pornographic
and/or violent images – as discussed in other contexts by Roberts (2019) and
Riesewieck & Block (“The Cleaners,” 2018). It is common to find in the HIT titles an indication that
they may involve offensive content. Among these tasks, we highlight here
some that Brazilian turkers mentioned in the survey:
“Push a button to send sms to other people”; “sexual image
analysis”; “moderate photos from adult dating sites”; “produce videos getting
inside and leaving one’s house”; “take pictures of pants, often with views that
include intimate regions”; “watch pornographic movies up to 30 minutes long”;
“play a game on the mobile phone while one’s face is being filmed”; “categorize
images from pornographic sites”; “write an erotic history”; “upload personal
photos”; “describe images of dead people, full of blood”; etc.
Even if it is a more demanding type of work, the respondents pointed out
that content moderation tasks have similar
remuneration to others that are less taxing: “Surely you should earn more for
this, it is not easy. This is a lawless land… ” There are, thus, strong
consequences of Amazon’s refusal to moderate the tasks posted on its platform.
As explained by a turker who detailed this process to us:
“Look, there’s a bit of everything. There was one that asked to
draw squares on the heads of pigs. I could tell it was to count the pigs on the
trucks, but I still found it very suspicious, a lot of young piggies piled up.
Also, there was one to analyze the videos of people performing actions in front
of houses’ doors, but wow, it was very strange, they say that these videos are
super confidential, and I suddenly felt like invading people's privacy. You
also have to moderate the photos of flirting apps, to say if there’s an
explicit penis and such. I once had one that involved seeing a lot of Russians
and Japanese carrying guns, clearly underage. The latter made me pretty bad emotionally,
like, for weeks and weeks”.
With so many troublesome services, such as the ones listed above
and the lack of support or responsibility by Amazon, it seems understandable
that some turkers responded indicating that they feel highly dissatisfied and anxious:
“I hate this platform. Everything wrong with the world can be
summarized to this here. Exploitative bosses, and workers who struggle to work
“It's frustrating most of the time, I can't seem to turn it off
anymore, because I don't make enough money and if I go to sleep a good task
will pop up and I'll be sleeping. I even used some medicines to get some rest,
meditation didn't help. when I was doing the same job for another company, but
with a contract for a workload of hours, I didn't get to this”;
“I don't like being on the computer so much”.
These complaints, among others, seem to come from the context of
invisibility and informality turkers are subject to, alongside AMT’s role as an
unaccountable platform. In response to this, there is little to do other than
for the workers to self-organize. As well spoken by Angela Davis (2018, p. 56),
we cannot feel it’s enough to just have individual actions, because it is “in
the collectivities that we find possibilities of hope and optimism.”
Organization and a common
point of struggle
In an email exchange, a Brazilian turker pointed out an
interdependent relationship between the inability of turkers to talk to each
other and the low payment offered by the HITs:
“In my first week of work, I did a very exhausting HIT that paid
0.01 cents. That's when I realized that isolating who works there [in AMT] is a
strategy used by Amazon: by myself, I don't have enough power to complain about
the poor quality of the descriptions, nor the payment.”
In response to these feelings of alienation from each other,
Brazilian turkers self-organize through MTurker, a very busy WhatsApp group. In
it, around 1500 messages are exchanged daily, including not only text, but
audio messages and various images such as memes and stickers. Discovering this
community of Brazilians turkers, and that they gathered and exchanged messages
daily, also offered us a glimpse into a specificity of the Brazilian context:
around 120 million out of the 210 million Brazilians use WhatsApp, and 92% of
them use the tool at least once a day.
The Brazilian turkers exchange information such as the best tasks
of the day, tips on how to deal when their work is rejected by requesters, and
dealing with the bureaucracies of the system. The MTurk community is also used
for the exchange of affectionate and stimulating messages, which may involve
criticism or jokes about some of the tasks offered in the platform – this
functions as a form of digital labor workplace informal interaction not very
different than workers commenting on their superiors in a traditional company
(Roy, 1959). About 22% of the stickers (emoticon-style figures that are
successful among Brazilians on WhatsApp) sent by group members are associated
with feelings of stress or indignation at the types of jobs found on the Amazon
platform, as shown in Image 2. This formation of a local Brazilian community confirms previous
studies that, in general terms, turkers often connect to those of a similar
geographic location (Yin et al., 2016, p.1302) in order to, e.g., help each
other with sign-up and payment bureaucracies, and share information on
lucrative tasks (p.1293).
Image 2 - A
collage of some of the shared stickers on the MTurker WhatsApp group. These
stickers were shared as a reaction to some of the tasks offered at AMT. In the second
sticker, the cover of a book read by Kermit the Frog is a phrase saying “How to
punch someone through a computer screen”; in the third, an expressively angry
dog is accompanied by the caption "What?".
Beyond serving as a community of support and informal interaction,
the MTurker WhatsApp group serves as a meeting space for mobilizing to advocate
for changes to AMT. The struggle that unites Brazilian turkers like nothing
else is their impossibility of receiving payment for their work in a
straightforward way. According to Amazon Terms of Service, only workers
resident in the United States, and a
select few from India, and 24 other
countries can receive their pay directly to a bank account via online money
transfer. For all turkers located elsewhere, including the Brazilians, the
payment is turned into credits that must be used on the US Amazon website. This
adds another layer of exploitation to the Brazilian turkers: they offer their
services to a company, and when they get paid they must exchange their payment
for products made available by the company to which they work for, which
further increases the company’s profit. This turns them into an
"under-underclass," being exploited not only through the work they
are doing and its low pay, but also through the added layer of not being paid
directly for their services.
For Brazilians, to buy something on Amazon US means paying
expensive shipping charges and taxes, not to mention the many weeks of delivery
to receive their products. Why, then, do Brazilians accept such troublesome
working conditions and pay to receive credits that they can hardly actually
use? The MTurker group is a space for sharing the multiple ways to circumvent
this reality. A website, for example, allows buying products from Amazon and
receiving the value in bitcoins. This worked for a few weeks, but without
further explanation, all the Brazilian turkers who did this were blocked and
since then no one has ever been able to repeat this operation. Most Brazilian
turkers opt for a similar strategy: trading Amazon credits for gift card codes
for, among others, GooglePlay, Nintendo and PlayStation. They then go on to
sell these codes on auction websites. This means
besides using a part of the money to pay the auction fees, they depend on the
auction website’s volatile market to sell the gift cards.
It is not uncommon for Brazilians to be blocked at the gift card
auctions. When this happens to one of the members of the group, tensions rise
in an expectation that this strategy could be blocked by Amazon. By audio
message, the creator of the MTurker group – also one of the most active and
supportive turkers there – explained the process and its hurdles:
We've been buying more PlayStation credit because it's the one
with most demand, but it's still slow right now, everyone is complaining. We
buy these credits from Amazon and sell them on GameFlip, a game-only platform
[marketplace for gift cards]. There you can put the credits you got on Amazon,
but you always have to offer discounts [to sell the gift cards]. This month
[July] is horrible. The process always means losses: you buy a gift card for
US$10 and have to sell there for about US$ 8.50, often even less than that. As
if that were not enough, once sold, you finally receive the money via Paypal,
discounting another 8% of the value. When the dollar value goes down,
everything gets even harder.
To try to change this situation of work exploitation consisting of
several layers and stages, Brazilian turkers are mobilized. Almost every day,
they send emails to Amazon asking the company to allow Brazilians to receive
their payments directly into their bank accounts, as happens in the USA, and
sometimes in India and other countries. So far, they haven’t received an answer
from Amazon. Although their complaints haven’t been fruitful, and the turkers
haven’t yet had enough power to change Amazon’s position, we understand their
creation of networks of support and organization as an important step in their
mobilization as a labor force.
In this article, we focused on better understanding AMT workers
(i.e. turkers) who are Brazilian. One of our main goals was to expose what are
the conditions of this kind of digital labor in Brazil. Much as expected, and
in line with previous studies of turkers in USA and India, the poor working
conditions of Brazilian turkers lead to low incomes, a high workload, and
different forms of stress and anxiety. The lack of any regulation makes it so
that workers are sometimes exposed to violent or pornographic content without
any form of support. Our findings differ from previous studies of turkers in
other countries in three particular regards: the role of AMT in Brazilian
turkers' economic lives, the consequences of the lack of direct payment, and
the importance of WhatsApp for organizing.
Brazilian turkers (much like the Indian turkers) are more
dependent on the money they make from AMT for their living expenses than
turkers from the USA. A large
amount of the respondents affirmed they have been unemployed for a long period
of time. This type of work thus seems directly tied to the rise of unemployment
in Brazil, and the subsequent expansion of the gig economy. Further
confirmation of this is that in July 2019 the
WhatsApp group for Brazilian turkers had 108 participants, while the number had
increased to 165 in August 2019. Once
given the opportunity of working at AMT, the Brazilian turkers find meaning and
motivation through a rhetoric of “hard work never fails.” The flexibility of
this form of labor is understood as one of its main selling points, with
workers embedded in a domestic and multitasking environment.
The most specific conclusion of this study is that workers in
differently from many other countries, including USA and some of the
Indian workers, are doubly-exploited: not
only is their work demanding and low-paid, but they have to use many different
subterfuges to get their payment. As Amazon does not make a transfer to their
bank account, like turkers in some other countries can, the turkers in Brazil
find themselves at the bottom of an unregulated market. Even though Amazon
accepts workers from Brazil, its procedures do not cover the most basic aspects
of work, such as payment. In this process, the company is able to grow its
services in the country, profiting without being accountable to the workers in
its platform, which become an “under-underclass.”
difficulties Brazilian turkers face make them rely on self-organized
groups, such as the MTurker WhatsApp group, which operate as spaces for these
workers to congregate and support each other. There
they share the difficulties of being a turker and ways to circumvent the
impossibility of receiving payments to their bank account. This
mobilization is still fragile, and doesn’t necessarily change the labor
conditions of AMT, but offers some hope that, although digital platform labor
attempts to isolate workers from each other, forms of mobilization and
self-organization can still exist. Although studies of turkers from other
countries speak of forums and other forms of connection, we have not previously
identified reports on turkers using WhatsApp as a crucial site of organizing.
indicated by Antunes (2019), the current mode of digital work in contexts of
the Global South has specificities in relation to the North. We understand
there is a strong need for further studies on how ghost work operates in
Brazil, especially as it happens through large scale platforms from the Global
North. These often operate irregularly in the country, so future studies can
support these workers by better understanding their labor and its social
consequences, while further enhancing public understanding and governmental
To conclude, we must emphasize that the interaction of humans and
machines is obviously not a problem in itself: turkers are only one
particular, somewhat troubling, example where humans are in the loop. If
human-machine interaction is central to the future of labor, as some speculate,
then it is fundamental that workers such as turkers be treated fairly and
responsibly — more akin to the surgeon, a master of a complex domain, than to a
pawn, a playing piece lost in a complex and unfair game. Likewise, it is
important to question whether the job insecurity faced by turkers directly
affects the quality of support they offer to technological and artificial
intelligence systems that are developed and maintained through their labor. In
other words, would better trained and informed workers offer results of a
higher quality to these systems? This is a fundamental question for those who
ask for fair and ethical digital infrastructures: their challenges do not
necessarily reside in programming, but possibly also on the labor contexts that
support these technologies.
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Bruno Moreschi holds a PhD in Arts at Unicamp (Brazil) and acts as researcher at GAIA (Art and Artificial
Intelligence Group) / C4AI / Inova USP, University of São Paulo. In this article, Bruno contributed by leading the research project, conducting
fieldwork and surveys, literature review and writing.
Gabriel Pereira is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Digital
Design and Information Studies at Aarhus University (Denmark). In this article, Gabriel contributed in the research methodology, data
analysis, literature review, and writing.
Fabio G. Cozman is full professor at Universidade
de São Paulo. In this
contributed with supervision of the research methods and processes, writing,
on November 11th, 2019/Accepted
on March 9th 2020.
To reference this article, please use the following citation: Moreschi, B.; Pereira, G.; Cozman, Fabio G. (2020).
The brazilian workers in Amazon Mechanical Turk: Dreams and
realities of ghost workers. Contracampo
– Brazilian Journal of Communication, 39 (1).