At A Glance – Ghost Workers

Freelance employees powering the AI and data revolution

A ghost worker used to be someone who featured on a company’s payroll, but didn’t actually do any work. This could be a result of the failure to keep admin up to date, or an out and out way for a business to commit fraud. Recently however, the term has taken on a new meaning. Coined by Microsoft researchers Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri in their 2019 book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley From Building a New Global Underclass, it now refers to the people who do the important – but often invisible – tasks which power our technology platforms.

One of the most prominent areas for ghost work is artificial intelligence. The data that is fed into AI algorithms must be cleaned, labelled, and fit for purpose for the specific task in hand. Train an algorithm with dodgy data and you simply won’t get reliable results… Similarly, tasks like content moderation on social media sites, creating captions, and translating text into different languages all require human input. Businesses might once have employed people in house to carry out these jobs. Today, however, they are mostly broken up and outsourced to freelancers online: ghost workers.

Ghost workers take their name from the hidden nature of the work they do and the often hazy conditions of their employment. Although essential to the functioning of modern technology companies – and by extension, most companies in general – the majority of ghost work passes under the radar. The employees themselves are difficult to quantify and face low wages and job instability.

In the case of content moderators, there are also risks of severe psychological trauma. These facts point to a level of exploitation by tech businesses, who rely on but fail to support this kind of contract worker. With the gig economy looking set to grow in the coming years, ghost workers highlight the problems arising from insecure, short term employment models and outsourcing.

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