Several ghost workers for an Australian AI company are speaking out against their employer for allegedly underpaying them due to missing invoices.
The term ‘ghost worker’ refers to individuals hired by a tech firm to label data used to train AI systems. They categorise text, transcribe audio files, and tag photos and videos manually to make search functions for voice assistants work.
Unlike regular employees, ghost workers are often only contracted by AI companies. They don’t enjoy the same benefits, such as leave credits, as their full time counterparts. They also don’t have much negotiating power with their employers.
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Appen, a Sydney-based AI firm, is one of the biggest employers of ghost workers in the world. The company purportedly enlists 1 million "flexible contributors" in over 170 countries. It counts Amazon, Boeing, and Google as some of their biggest clients.
However, Appen has come under fire from its workers because of multiple issues. These include missed invoices, poor communication from company leaders, and projects that don’t make sense or disappear with no reason.
Several Reddit users also posted on the popular forum website to warn other people about working at Appen. Some of these posts had titles like "Appen, save yourself time and frustration" and "Beware of Appen!!".
In an article by ABC, Appen contractors revealed that there were times when their invoices were delayed or missed for an entire month.
One of the employees interviewed even showed his invoice tab on Appen's dashboard with no invoice for June. The missing invoice amounted to hundreds of hours of pay.
Christina Golden, a spokesperson for Appen, admitted that there have been issues with the company’s invoices for one of their projects this year. She claimed that they have already addressed these problems.
“We have always kept open communication with our contributors,” Golden said. “If they have a need to share feedback anonymously, we have a whistleblower hotline that is given to all contributors.”
However, some Appen employees don’t agree with how their employer is handling the situation. They said they only get slow and generic responses whenever they try to raise concerns about their jobs or pay.
Appen workers also told ABC about issues with their pay, pointing out that they only receive salaries that were around or just above minimum wage based on their location.
Golden said Appen has always used location-based minimum wage for its workers to make sure that they were "paying above".
“Rates vary by the project due to the different levels of difficulties or expertise required to complete the task,” she said.
Crowd conditions have been one of Appen’s major concerns, as stated in its 2021 annual report. The company has had customers ask about worker conditions, such as how content moderation is handled. This is important since people could encounter extreme and disturbing content.
It is rare for big tech firms to acknowledge the work done for them by smaller companies like Appen. This makes it even less likely for Appen’s ghost workers to get the recognition that they deserve for helping train the company’s systems.
Jathan Sadowski, a senior research fellow at Monash University and expert on digital technology, believes data labour involving ghost workers is not discussed enough by the public. These workers don’t receive the same level of respect and pay as others in the tech industry.
For Sadowski, data annotation work will only become more specialised once companies are able to develop AI systems for industries such as insurance or medicine.