I’m paid $14 an hour to rate AI-generated Google search results. Subcontractors like me do key work but don’t get fair wages or benefits

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You probably google things a lot. But it’s unlikely you think about the subcontractors like me who make your search results safe and worthwhile.

On a typical weekday morning, I sit down at my computer in my home in Choctaw, Oklahoma, to start a day of work as a Google Search rater, evaluating the quality of search results—both live and experimental—to feed the search engine’s recommendations and rankings. I log into Google’s portal to see my first assigned task—if I have any, which has become less reliable since late last year. If I don’t, I wait until a new task appears, which can take unpaid hours of my day. Once I start a task, there is no indication of how many others are lined up behind it, and no tools to communicate with anyone. It’s just me, a timer, and a search result I must label as good or poor in a few minutes—less time than it takes to do the job right.

These days, most search results I evaluate are AI-generated, and I’m told to fact-check those by googling. That’s right: I fact check AI-generated search results with Google search results to populate future search results. 

This is how Google’s search result sausage is made: Real people like me make it. The bad results we filter out include the fraudulent (sending you to a scam website when you try to buy your Nikes) to the downright dangerous (telling you it is safe to take a particular medication for your health condition when it absolutely isn’t).

Yet we don’t get receive fair wages and benefits. Google recently made that official, reversing a decision made in 2019, when the Alphabet subsidiary announced it’d require vendors to pay its “extended workforce” a minimum rate of $15 per hour plus health benefits. That followed employees protesting how the company treats people like me: the tens of thousands of temporary workers hired through vendors and subcontracted to Google.

Last month, Google quietly removed that requirement, a blow for workers and our union’s organizing efforts, as well as for Google’s reputation as a kinder, gentler tech giant.

“These updates bring us in line with other large companies and simply clarify that Google is not, and has never been, the employer of our suppliers’ employees,” a spokesperson told Reuters, adding that most of the tech giant’s suppliers operate in states that mandate a minimum wage of at least $15.

Many of my colleagues and I, meanwhile, never did get that once-promised rate. Almost two years after starting at $14 an hour, I still earn the same amount. And this year—even before removing the vendor requirement—Google brought on other quality raters at $12 and even $10 an hour. The announcement about worker protections in 2019, it appears, was for show. And now that the economy has shifted and corners need to be cut to preserve shareholder earnings, Google is fully taking off the mask. 

The company has said it removed the minimum rate requirement because it wants to make clear that it’s not a “joint employer” alongside the vendors who hired us. It’s a legal distinction of growing significance now that the government is debating the rights of companies trying to deny huge swaths of workers the benefits and pay that full-time employees would be owed.

Google is playing defense now. It’s even introduced mandatory training for full-time employees on how to interact with contractors to ensure that the company can legally avoid claims of “co-employment” and any obligation to bargain collectively with us around our working conditions, judging by screen shots I’ve seen.

Yet in our work as quality raters, Google runs the show. We work on its platforms and follow its guidelines. Google assigns our time limits and determines the ratings we’re graded against. Our labor on its tools following its rules has helped the company rake in billions in search revenue.

And now that the company is focusing on AI efforts, quality raters like me are critical to ensuring that search results aren’t littered with bad results and misinformation. We are the invisible backbone of Google, and we deserve a fair wage.

It’s not just contractors feeling the shift in Google’s mood. Unprecedented rolling layoffs over the past few years have affected thousands. The same week Google removed the minimum rate requirement, it fired more than 50 direct employees who exercised their right to protest against its cloud-computing deal with Israel.

After the Women’s Walkout in 2018, and the 2019 protests against Google’s deals with military and government groups, the company made a show of being willing engage with workers’ concerns.

Lately, though, Google’s leaders are revealing the true face of the company. Less than a week after the latest firings and the abandonment of the minimum rate, Alphabet shares surged after the company reported strong revenue growth and announced its first-ever dividend and a new $70 billion round of stock buybacks. CEO Sundar Pichai is near or at billionaire status. The company has a cash pile of more than $100 billion. 

Google, it seems, has shed its commitment to workers. Shareholders seem to approve. 

The actions against contractors and full-timers have a chilling effect on our efforts to improve our conditions. But as secretary of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA, I can tell you that we’re not scared. We’ve shown up at Google headquarters in California and at city council meetings across the country to petition for our rights, and we’re ready to keep fighting for fair pay and better conditions.

So, the next time you google something, think of me in Oklahoma. Remember that one of the world’s biggest companies doesn’t think the work I do to build the internet you use every day is worth protecting.   

Toni Allen is a Google Search subcontractor and secretary of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA.

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