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Google's 'Ghost Workers' are demanding to be seen by the tech giant

Google raters get ready for a rally at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters on Feb. 1, 2023.
Dara Kerr
Google raters get ready for a rally at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters on Feb. 1, 2023.

Teresa Partain has a job few people know exists. She's a content moderator for Google's ads engine and many of her colleagues do the same work for Google Search. Their job is to make sure the results people see are accurate and not spam or scams. Google calls these workers "quality raters," but Partain said they call themselves "ghost workers."

"Most people — even at Google — have no idea that we exist," Partain said. "They don't know that there are human beings doing a lot of the work. They think that the software is magic and already perfect and doesn't need maintenance. And that's just not true."

But now they want to be seen. They've written letters to Google executives, held a rally outside the company's Silicon Valley headquarters and created a petition to demand benefits and better pay.

Partain isn't employed by Google directly, but by a subcontractor called Appen. And, she said, that employment setup is what has led to worker grievances – mainly low wages, no benefits and isolation from colleagues. Partain is one of at least 10,000 people worldwide doing this job, according to Google.

They work from home and even though they're employed by subcontractors, they're given assignments directly by Google. Partain evaluates the quality and placement of Google ads, while her colleagues rate the quality of Google Search results. Their tasks can range from confirming a search for "carrot cake recipe" brings up relevant results to making sure an airfare ad doesn't appear next to a news story about a plane crash.

Without them, Google Search wouldn't function smoothly. Google says it gets billions of queries every day and it's constantly making improvements to ensure its algorithms keep up. Danny Sullivan, the company's public liaison for Search, wrote in ablog post that getting feedback from raters is "a key part of our evaluation process."

Raters work on Google's two most vital products — Search and ads. In 2022, Google made more than $224 billion in revenue from Search and advertising, accounting for more than 79 percent of its total revenue. For comparison, that's more than the entire gross domestic product of Greece.

"We support billions of dollars of revenue," Google rater Ed Stackhouse told NPR. "And we get paid less than your average fast food worker."

Google raters who work for Appen make between $14 and $14.50 an hour and under company policy can't work more than 29 hours a week. Raters who spoke with NPR said they have health conditions or family needs that require them to work from home and they appreciate they can do that. But, since they can't work more than 29 hours a week, they're not eligible for benefits like health care and sick leave.

Google spokesperson Courtenay Mencini told NPR in a statement that "Our suppliers manage all employment terms for the raters, including pay and benefits." Appen, which is an Australian company that has other big tech clients such as Salesforce and LinkedIn, didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ramping up the pressure

A group of about 50 Google workers gathered in an outdoor courtyard at the company's sprawling California headquarters in February. Many of them wore red t-shirts that sported the Alphabet Workers Union logo, which is a labor group made up of people who work for Google and its parent company Alphabet.

They unfurled a massive white cloth banner that read, "Google: End Rater Poverty" and chanted "Equal pay for equal work."

Raters had come from around the country to hand deliver a petition to Prabhakar Raghavan, Google's senior vice president in charge of Search, ads and other divisions. The petition, which has now been signed by more than 850 raters, asks Raghavan to meet with them to discuss better pay and benefits.

Partain flew in from Kansas for the rally and said she'd been a rater for more than seven years and that she and her colleagues "want to be able to do our job well, earn a dignified wage and have access to basic benefits." The raters were joined by worker advocates, local politicians and union representatives.

"A lot of people don't really understand just how prevalent the subcontracting and staffing agency usage is," said Roberto Clack, executive director of Temp Worker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for contract workers. "These models are really the driving force towards lower labor standards."

Google's Mencini declined to provide numbers on the company's subcontractor workforce. But, according to estimates from the Alphabet Workers Union, Alphabet has around 200,000 contract workers worldwide who do all sorts of jobs. That's more than 50 percent of the company's total workforce.

The raters' pressure campaign on Google began last year. With the help of Alphabet Workers Union, they began meeting each other and organizing online.

In May, Alphabet Workers Union published an open letter to Raghavan demanding the company raise pay for raters. Then, in January of this year, raters who work for Appen got their first-ever raise to $14 or $14.50 an hour, based on seniority. Previously, workers made roughly $10 to $13 an hour.

After the February rally, Appen raters were told they'd get another raise by the end of this year that would increase their pay to $15 an hour. Then, a couple weeks later, Appen sent them an email saying the hours they work could be extended from the previous maximum of 26 hours per week to what raters have now—29 hours per week. Raters can work their own hours, but it can be no more than 29 per week.

"So, the magic 30 hours a week is what we can't go past," Partain said.

Google's Mencini told NPR that the company's Wages and Benefits standards — which would provide healthcare and sick leave to contractors — only apply to people who are assigned to Google at least 30 hours per week and have access to the company's corporate systems or campuses.

Raters say that as long as they haven't met that threshold, they're going to keep up the pressure.

"What we're asking for now is just to be allowed to get the same benefits as people who work 30 hours a week are supposed to get," Partain said. "And if we have to work 30 hours a week in order to get them, people would be happy to do that."

As far as a response from Raghavan to meet with them, raters say they're still waiting.

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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.