Inside the online sweatshops

Stewart Mitchell uncovers the appalling rates of pay on offer for online work

Stewart Mitchell
6 Aug 2010

With the recession continuing to bite, many people may be tempted to venture online to find extra income.

There are plenty of ways to find work on the internet - Amazon, Google and YouGov all run schemes where you can earn money for your work - but you'll be competing against some desperate people from around the world and the pay rates can be pitifully low. Get rich quick, this definitely is not.

During the Great Depression in the US, workers lined up on street corners, waiting for farmers to arrive in trucks and take them to work in the fields. Work referral schemes such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk and Elance mean that nowadays there's a global work gang hanging around on the web, and potential employees can pick and choose talent, safe in the knowledge that many are willing to work for well below the minimum wage.

The intense global competition for work means wages are driven so low that people labour for hours on repetitive, menial tasks, turning employment opportunities into online sweat shops.

We joined the job queue to find out exactly how hard you have to work for your money at some of the web's best known employers.

Mechanical Turk

On Amazon's Mechanical Turk companies post work they want doing with a price for each piecemeal chunk of labour. They are largely unskilled tasks that cannot be completely automated.


One such Human Intelligence Task (HIT) we tried involved finding the website, physical addresses and phone numbers of hotels for a travel website, for only $0.01 a time.

The contract is for 2,436 HITs, so was potentially worth $24, but a brief dabble with the mind-numbing work found the details often took more than a minute to locate, which equates to a rate of around $0.60 an hour, barely enough to cover the electricity bill.

Later we bagged a $4.25 HIT for writing the blurb about an online retailer for a price-comparison site. The work took about half an hour, but each HIT has to be approved, and your correspondent (with 16 years of journalistic experience) was more than miffed to receive the following feedback: “Your article did not meet our standards and was rejected. Please try harder next time.”

As non-acceptance equals non-payment we took up the offer of "specific feedback", which promised to enlighten us as to the reasons for the rejection, but it was frustratingly blank.

We contacted the commissioning company, MediaPiston, which blamed a “bug in the system” for the rejection and sent payment almost immediately through PayPal, but it was nonetheless additional grief and work for the princely final sum of £2.59.



Market research company YouGov is one of several firms that pays for your opinions. After signing up, applicants receive between 50 and 100 points per survey they fill out, with each survey taking anything between five and 20 minutes, according to YouGov.

Once users reach 5,000 points they receive a cheque for £50. It sounds tempting, but if you break it down the hourly rate isn't going to pay the rent.

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