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Unionised contract workers who train Google’s AI win pay rise

Thousands of Google contract workers responsible for training and testing the tech giant’s search algorithms have secured their first-ever pay increase, via a union campaign.

Previously paid as little as $10 an hour, the workers at RaterLabs – an artificial intelligence (AI) training supplier whose only known client is Google – will now be paid $14 or $14.50 an hour, depending on their experience.

The workers involved, otherwise known as “raters”, were organised with the Alphabet Workers Union-Communications Workers of America (AWU-CWA), which represents workers throughout Google parent company Alphabet’s workforce, including its contracted and temporary staff.

Their day-to-day consists of testing and evaluating Google’s search results by rating how accurately the algorithm responds to various prompts, as well as the relevance and quality of the ads served. Known as “clickwork”, such labour underpins the development of AI and algorithms, but is often ignored or assumed to be work conducted by machines rather than people.

Despite the low pay for those training its search algorithms, Alphabet regularly reports that over 80% of its total revenue comes from search ads.

RaterLabs workers began their campaign for increased pay in May 2022, demanding that the company respect and enforce its own wage standards by extending them to all temporary and contracted workers – not just those directly employed.

Google previously set out a wage and benefits standard for its US workforce in April 2019, which committed it to paying any member of its extended Google workforce with systems access a minimum of $15 an hour.

It added that, in locations where the minimum wage is more, higher requirement should be complied with. Other benefits contained in the policy include providing workers with 12 weeks of paid leave, as well as eight days of paid sick leave, healthcare provision and a $5,000 annual tuition allowance.

Following their months-long union campaign, AWU-CWA members met with RaterLabs management in October 2022, where they raised issues around poor wages and a lack of benefits. Appen, RaterLabs’ parent company, and Google later announced new salary increases on 21 December, which came into effect on 1 January 2023.

Computer Weekly contacted both Google and Appen for comment on the story, but received no response by time of publication.

“The work we do as raters for Google is critical to their success,” said Michelle Curtis, an Alphabet contract worker with RaterLabs and union member. “Yet, since I started as a rater eight years ago, I have not received a single raise.

“Through organising with AWU-CWA I have found hundreds of fellow coworkers who were struggling to make ends meet, some being paid as little as $10 an hour. I am proud to see our organising win the first-ever raises for workers.

“While $14.50 is a step forward, it is still not the $15.00 minimum set by Google for its extended workforce, and does not include the multitude of other benefits currently denied to us,” she said. “We call on Google to ensure every worker receives their promised baseline benefits, and to hold Appen accountable for upholding their end of that responsibility.”

Contradictory responses

Jay Buchanan, another RaterLabs contract worker and union member, added that whenever issues around low pay were raised, workers would receive contradictory responses from Google and RaterLabs about who was responsible for salaries.

“At the end of the day, the only reason workers received this long-overdue pay increase is because we overcame multiple hurdles to our organising and banded together to uplift our shared demands,” he said. “This recent pay increase will significantly improve the living conditions of thousands of workers. Yet, we are not done. We demand that Google hold all of its contracting companies accountable to fulfilling the baseline pay and benefits we’ve been promised as members of Google’s extended workforce.”

Parul Koul, software engineer and AWU-CWA executive chair, further added that “victories like this one make it clear that workers refuse to remain separated by lines of employment classification and can achieve so much more when we band together”.

In 2021, AWU-CWA members organised with workers at Modis datacentres to win back hundreds of thousands of dollars in hazard pay, while the RaterLabs case marks the first-ever salary increase to be won by AWU-CWA workers.

According to AWU-CWA, while the exact number of temporary and contract workers throughout Alphabet’s supply chains is not made public by the company, it estimates there are at least tens of thousands.

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