On August 28, 2023 at 2:00 a.m. EDT, something interesting is happening in the Philippines. Internet cafes are buzzing with activity as workers immerse themselves in the world of artificial intelligence. These young individuals spend their days sifting through data, meticulously annotating and labeling it for the AI models used by American companies.
In these not-so-fancy internet cafes or crowded office spaces, these workers are engaged in a crucial task. They help differentiate pedestrians from palm trees in videos, enabling the development of algorithms for automated driving. They painstakingly label images so that AI systems can create accurate representations of politicians and celebrities. They even edit chunks of text to ensure that language models like ChatGPT don’t generate gibberish.
You see, AI may seem like an automated process, but it relies heavily on the human touch. These workers, estimated to be more than 2 million in the Philippines alone, form the underbelly of the AI industry. They laboriously transform raw data into the fuel that powers AI advancements across the globe.
However, not all is well in this industry. One platform that employs these workers, called Remotasks, has come under scrutiny. Owned by the multi-billion dollar start-up Scale AI, Remotasks has been accused of paying workers extremely low rates, delaying or withholding payments, and providing limited avenues for workers to seek help. Scale AI, which works with major companies like Meta and Microsoft and generative AI firms like Open AI, claims on its website to pay rates at a living wage. But workers’ experiences tell a different story.
Of the 36 current and former workers interviewed, almost all said they’ve experienced delayed, reduced, or canceled payments. These workers often find themselves earning far below the minimum wage, which ranges from $6 to $10 a day in the Philippines. While there are instances when they earn more, it seems to be the exception rather than the norm.
The situation within Remotasks is troubling. Internal company messages and payment records suggest that delays or missing payments are all too common. Workers are often left in the dark about why their payments are withheld, and efforts to address the issue usually end in frustration or even account deactivation.
Take the case of Charisse, who spent four hours on a task expecting a $2 payment but was only given 30 cents. Or Jackie, who worked for three days, expecting $50 but received a meager $12. Then there’s Benz, who accumulated over $150 in payments but was suddenly booted from the platform without receiving a cent. Paul, who has been working on Remotasks for three years, has lost track of how much money he’s owed.
This situation is not unique to Remotasks but highlights a broader issue. As AI technology advances, the focus has been primarily on its biases and potential abuses. However, the exploitation of workers in this field is a new frontier that needs attention. Companies like Remotasks, with its army of freelancers in the Global South, sidestep labor regulations and set their own terms and conditions, often to the detriment of workers.
The government of the Philippines, upon hearing about these issues, expressed concern but admitted uncertainty about how to regulate platforms like Remotasks. The absence of labor standards in this field allows companies to exploit workers without consequence.
Scale AI, founded in 2016 and backed by significant venture capital, presents itself as a leader in the AI race. It has garnered contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including projects for the U.S. Department of Defense. Despite recent efforts to hire more contractors in the United States, the majority of Scale AI’s workforce remains in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The growth of Remotasks in the Philippines has benefited some, offering opportunities to young people in a region often lacking economic prospects. However, the decline in pay rates and questionable practices have created a race to the bottom, where workers from different countries compete for meager wages.
These revelations shed light on the darker side of the AI industry, a side that often goes unnoticed. While AI is meant to transform the world for the better, it should not come at the expense of individuals who make it all possible. It is crucial for companies, governments, and consumers to demand fair treatment and standards in this growing field, ensuring that workers are not left behind in the pursuit of AI advancement.