Britain’s hidden online ‘microworkers’ paid less than £4 an hour

·3 min read

Workers engaging in a rapidly growing form of unregulated internet labour known as microwork are routinely being denied the minimum wage, it can be revealed.

An investigation by the thinktank Autonomy and researchers at the University of Exeter and the London School of Economics suggests that thousands could be earning less than £4 an hour.

Microworkers perform simple tasks such as identifying and captioning images to nudge along artificial intelligence operations, data entry, or simply clicking on ads to drive traffic. The industry grew during the pandemic as people were forced to work from home.

But the survey of 1,189 UK-based microworkers suggests that, like others in the gig economy who are not classified as employees under employment law, wages are often below the minimum wage.

Almost two in three said they earn less than £4 an hour under piece-wage terms in which they are paid per task, with 95% making less than the UK minimum wage. The hourly rate is effectively even worse as workers must spend time securing new assignments. Some 30% of microworkers said they spend at least half an hour on unpaid activities per hour of paid work.

Most microworkers, who number well into the millions, are from countries such as India, Kenya and Venezuela but with wages flatlining in the UK amid a cost of living crisis even such low wages are becoming increasingly attractive for Britons.

The report said: “Microwork and other forms of digital piece work are beginning to play an important role within neoliberal ‘hustle culture’: the idea that individuals ought to be productive all of the time and that success is determined by endless work and the attainment of an entrepreneurial ideal. Due to the influence of a pervasive ‘always on’ culture promoted by celebrities and influencers on social media, many workers feel guilty when not working.”

Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said the UK government should “name and shame the companies paying microworkers below the minimum wage” and “unfairly exploiting thousands of microworkers” in an “exploding industry which has zero regulation”. He added: “This invisible online workforce deserves better compensation and protections in work.”

Microworkers often have no relationship with the people they work for. One mircoworker from the east of England told the Observer: “It’s difficult to get in touch with anyone from these platforms to say if there’s an issue or the system is not functioning. It’s faceless, you’re part of a machine. Things are quite one-sided.”

He began doing microwork during the pandemic, and he welcomes the fact that he can work during the hours once spent commuting. But “the pay is low when you put it into context and I think the companies and platforms are getting some very cheap labour out of it,” he added. “You might also get your work rejected and that means you don’t get paid for it. If I was relying on this for my main income, I would be very concerned.”