Unions make it possible for groups of people who don’t necessarily work together to take collective action. But what about workers in the so-called “on-demand economy?” Contractors in the startup world–the people who deliver your food, drive you around, or complete your tasks–have little recourse if they want to band together. And all too often, they’re treated like cogs in a well-funded machine, with little acknowledgement that they’re real people with needs. They have few to no protections.
A Stanford-led team of researchers set out to see if there was some sort of platform that could be created for workers in this new economy, where they could discuss their problems and come up with strategies to address them. Their creation: Dynamo, a virtual forum for the freelancers who find gigs on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowd-powered work platform.
Created over a two-year period, Dynamo now has hundreds of regular users who work together to create collective action. It’s not as if Mechanical Turk workers haven’t gathered in other forums–there is a subreddit where workers report on the best-paying Turk tasks available at any given moment, for example–but the researchers found that these other forums rarely lead to sustained action.
In many ways, Dynamo is like any other online forum, but with a few tweaks to make it more attractive to workers. Privacy is a big component; no one wants their employer to know if they are badmouthing them. To overcome these concerns, the researchers required that workers had a certain amount of Turk tasks completed before signing up, gave them unique registration codes, and assigned random screen names. Dynamo also has a seemingly reddit-inspired way of dealing with individual issues. From the researchers’ paper on Dynamo:
Dynamo focuses on short idea pitches. Ideas act as polls that enable publics to form around them. Pitching a new idea requires a 140-character description, such as “I think we should create a Dynamo badge for good requesters who are following the guidelines so they can put it on their surveys.” Workers can vote the idea up or down, and the idea graduates to become a campaign once it acquires 25 upvotes and has more upvotes than downvotes. Once a user submits an idea, Dynamo automatically generates a new forum thread to host discussion and debate on the idea.
In six months of operation, some 470 Turk workers registered–a fairly small number considering the huge scale of Mechanical Turk, but the researchers only aimed to attract “small groups of motivated people” in the first place. Among the campaigns launched on Dynamo: a worker-owned alternative to Amazon’s worker certification, worker-created ethical guidelines for academic researchers using Mechanical Turk, and a letter-writing campaign to Jeff Bezos that attempts to humanize Turk workers. (The campaign’s description: “We are writing to let you and the rest of the world know all about who we are. The intent is for you to see that Turkers are not only actual human beings, but people who deserve respect, fair treatment and open communication.”)
Some concrete changes have been achieved, too. Thanks to Dynamo, Amazon.com now offers direct deposit to Turk workers in India.
Not every campaign is expected to be successful; as with any online forum, Dynamo has dealt with slowing momentum on certain topic threads as well as pointless and alienating arguments. Community moderation from the researchers has helped.
Dynamo is just one relatively small-scale example of what companies should offer their freelance employees. Of course, there has to be some sort of incentive–for many startups, the business plan starts to falter once hourly workers realize that they should ask for better treatment.