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Google's 'ghost workers' are asking for labor rights

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story that originally aired on Weekend Edition on March 25 incorrectly said the workers make $15 an hour. In fact they have been promised a $15 hour wage sometime before the end of this year. That raise has yet to take effect, currently some workers make $14 an hour, others make $14.50.]

SCOTT SIMON (HOST): An army of workers is behind every Google search you do. They're there for quality control and try to make sure your results aren't full of inaccurate or misleading links. And they are people, not artificial intelligence. Google calls them Google Raters. But as NPR's Dara Kerr reports, they call themselves ghost workers.

DARA KERR (BYLINE): When Ed Stackhouse flips open his laptop every morning and logs on, he sees a list of assignments from Google. For example, he's told to examine whether the results from a YouTube search match what people could be looking for.

ED STACKHOUSE (GOOGLE RATER, APPEN): And I will tick off boxes as to whether or not it's upsetting, offensive or pornographic in nature, racy and that sort.

KERR: And that's just YouTube. Stackhouse also makes sure Google searches are authentic and that page links aren't broken. Basically, he's a content moderator. His job is to rate the quality of searches and be on the lookout for scams. Like all Google Raters, Stackhouse works from home. He lives in North Carolina, but these workers are spread out around the world. They don't work directly for Google, but for contracting companies. And that is what has turned them into ghost workers, says Google Rater Teresa Partain.

TERESA PARTAIN (GOOGLE RATER, APPEN): There's a wall between us and Google. We're not actually even supposed to say Google. We're not allowed to have any contact with the people on their search and ads team who need our help.

KERR: Partain and Stackhouse work for a contractor called Appen. They and all their colleagues make $15 an hour and aren't allowed to work more than 29 hours a week. If they could get just one more hour each week, then under Google policies, they say they'd qualify for benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave.

PARTAIN: The magic 30 hours a week is what we can't go past.

KERR: A Google spokeswoman told NPR that subcontracting companies like Appen, quote, "manage all employment terms for the Raters, including pay and benefits." Appen didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. Stackhouse has a heart condition, and Partain has Parkinson's disease, so they appreciate working from home. However, health insurance is a big issue. Over the past year, Google Raters have been building a community to advocate for better working conditions, and now they're amping up the pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Equal pay for equal work. Equal pay for equal work.

KERR: Dozens of Raters and their supporters rallied at Google's sprawling California headquarters in January. They were surrounded by a network of glass-walled buildings that featured Google's colorful logo. Employees rode by on the free-for-all bicycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BICYCLE BELL DING)

KERR: A lot of contractors work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet. In total, they have around 200,000 contract workers worldwide, according to Alphabet Workers Union. That's equal to more than 50% of their workforce. Frank Arce, a union vice president for the Communications Workers of America, says Google search would be full of glitches without the Raters.

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FRANK ARCE (UNION VP, COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS OF AMERICA): Raters are why Google search results are so good. They make sure that people like you and me get the information we need every single time. And no one working for Google should be struggling to pay their rent.

(APPLAUSE)

KERR: A few weeks after the rally, Google and Appen answered some of the workers' demands. They raised their pay from $14.50 an hour to what Raters make now, $15 an hour. But economic storm clouds have started to gather over Silicon Valley. Google laid off about 6% of its workforce in January. Still, the company posted nearly 60 billion in net profit last year. And Stackhouse says Raters help that profit by working on the company's two biggest moneymakers - search and advertising.

STACKHOUSE: We support billions of dollars of revenue, and we get paid less than your average fast-food worker.

KERR: Google Raters have proved their value, he says, and that gives them the confidence to ask for more change. Dara Kerr, NPR News.

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Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.