US civil society groups demand better conditions for AI workers
Some 24 American unions and civil society groups have written a letter to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to highlight the poor working conditions of data workers, and how they are negatively affected by new technologies.
The signatories – which include Turkopticon, the Distributed AI Research Institute, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, Families for Freedom and TechEquity Collaborative – were prompted by a separate letter that eight US politicians wrote to nine leading American tech companies about the working conditions of their data workers in September, and what they say is the companies’ “failure to adequately answer”.
The original letter – addressed to Google, OpenAI, Anthropic, Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Inflection AI, Scale AI and IBM – calls on the companies to “not build AI [artificial intelligence] on the backs of exploited workers”, and outlines how data workers are often subject to low wages with no benefits, constant surveillance, arbitrary mass rejections and wage theft, and working conditions that contribute to psychological distress.
Signed by a number of senators and representatives – including Edward Markey, Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and representatives Pramila Jayapal, Jamaal Bowman, Katie Porter and Mark Pocan – the letter added that, contrary to the popular notion of AI as an autonomous autodidactic system, its operation in practice depends heavily on human labour.
Computer Weekly wrote to each of the nine companies for comment on their alleged lack of adequate response, as well as the contents of the letter to Schumer. While Scale AI confirmed it has sent a response to the member of Congress, it declined to comment further, while Microsoft said it had nothing to share. None of the other firms responded. Computer Weekly also contacted Jayapal – who led other members of Congress on the letter to tech firms – about whether she was satisfied with the AI firms’ answers, but received no response by time of publication.
The coalition of unions and civil society groups is now urging Schumer to consider how workers are being impacted by new technologies, and are urging him to respond to their demands.
They specifically call for Congress to create greater protections against “predatory surveillance and automated management practices”; change public policies that incentivise job replacement or deskilling; fortify workers right to organise and bargain around issues of technology; and take measures that prioritise the health, safety, and wages of data workers training and developing AI.
In their letter, the organisations mentioned several alarming working conditions, including “invasive workplace surveillance in order to maintain control over workers”. For example, it details how Amazon is allegedly using surveillance to retaliate against workers and undermine their rights to speak out or take collective action. Similarly, employees at Google and Walmart have alleged that their employer embedded browser extensions and listening devices to quash organising activities and unionising.
The letter’s signatories claim this constant surveillance has enforced a dangerous pace of work, which has brought on a worker injury crisis.
They note, for example, that Amazon uses its package scanners to not only track packages, but also to measure the number of seconds between each scan to ensure an item is moved along every 11 seconds, while FedEx workers have to wear a heavy scanner attached to their forearm which has caused repetitive stress injuries.
According to recent findings from ExpressVPN, 80% of employers use monitoring software, while separate research from Top10VPN found that half of tracked employees say these practices have affected their mental health. “It’s like you’re fighting for your job every day,” said a UPS driver.
The letter added that the normalisation of workplace surveillance creates an unhealthy environment where employers can easily engage in anti-union surveillance, which the General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board has warned against because it may discourage workers from using their legally protected organising rights.
“This is particularly concerning for low-wage workers, gig workers or otherwise typically marginalised – including Black and Latinx – workers, for whom organising for better conditions is more risky,” they wrote.
In the AI industry itself, data workers are victims to low wages, wage theft, intense surveillance and retaliation against organising, the letter explained. For example, it noted that some Mechanical Turk (Amazon’s digital labour platform) workers have reported being paid below minimum wage while receiving no health insurance or benefits, and highlighted research that estimates nearly a third of workers’ time is spent on uncompensated work.
According to a June 2023 report from Turkopticon, many are also unpaid without explanation.
Corporations have also used this technology to put workers at risk to be replaced, fissured, deskilled or paid less, the letter claims.
“Digital labor platforms like Uber and Amazon’s Flex use automated management to actualise invisible corporate control of workers, despite asserting that the workers are independent businesses,” it said. “As a result, platform workers are stripped of a host of labor rights and protections, and prone to wage theft, discrimination and on-the-job injury.”
It further highlighted similar situations where employers have used AI to replace workers. For example, earlier this year, the National Eating Disorder Association announced it was shutting down its human-run helpline and replacing workers with a chatbot. That decision came after helpline employees voted to unionise. The chatbot ended up providing dubious and even harmful advice to people with eating disorders seeking help.
The letter also mentioned cases where workers and unions have fought back, stating the Writers Guild of America’s negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, resulting in a deal outlining workers’ rights to credit and compensation, regardless of whether is used in part of their work.
Rapid action necessary
The letter ultimately urged Schumer and Congress to take rapid action in the face of a rapidly developing technology.
“Congress should develop a new generation of economic policies and labor rights to prevent corporations like Amazon from leveraging tech-driven worker exploitation into profit and outcompeting rivals by taking the low road,” they wrote.
“Establishing robust protections related to workplace technology and rebalancing power between workers and employers could reorient the economy and tech innovation toward more equitable and sustainable outcomes.”