The wage increase is welcome, but workers complain they are still making less than Google’s other contractors.
Thousands of Google contractors, who rate the quality of search results, have gotten hourly raises for the first time ever, after months of protesting to the tech giant about receiving “poverty wages” for their work in maintaining the company’s most iconic product.
The raises will lift pay to $14 and $14.50 per hour—as high as a 45% increase for some—for workers at Appen, a contracting company that works with Google to provide raters, according to emails announcing the increase that were viewed by Forbes. The increases were announced at the end of December and went into effect January 1st. Previously, raters at Appen made $10 to $12 per hour.
Google’s army of raters are responsible for making sure search results and ads are relevant. For example, if someone searches for medical information, raters check to see if reputable sites like the Mayo Clinic are surfaced, and not fringe sites peddling conspiracy theories. Raters also try to make sure people find what they are looking for even if they type misspellings or get the wording wrong. So, as one rater explained to Forbes, if someone wants to see pictures of moon jellyfish and for some reason enters “moonpie jellyfish,” raters will see to it that people don’t get results about marshmallow snacks.
“We are kind of the backbone of the search engine,” Jay Buchanan, a rater based outside of Asheville, North Carolina, said in an interview. “I understand this is not the entirety of it—this is a vast team project. But we’re doing important work, and that work deserves to be compensated with a living wage.”
Google declined to comment. Appen didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Google’s search engine, of course, is the cornerstone of its empire. Launched in 1998 and stemming from a Stanford graduate school project from cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the product has ballooned from a simple list of ten blue links to a sprawling amalgam of photos, videos, maps, flight departures and hotel rates. In the third quarter, Google made almost $40 billion in search ads, accounting for more than 57% of the company’s total revenue.
Google says it has more than 10,000 raters around the world. Raters who spoke to Forbes said they did not know how many raters work for Appen, but they estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 workers got raises as part of the pay increase. Appen isn’t the only contractor that employs Google raters, but the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), the labor group that protested on behalf of the raters, said it does not think raters at other contracting companies, such as the digital solutions company Telus, received raises. Telus didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While the increase is welcome by workers, they argue that it does not go far enough. In 2019, Google set a minimum wage of $15 for its “extended workforce” of contractors who aren’t full time Google employees. Raters say they should be included in that population, though Google has said the raters don’t meet requirements for that designation. In May, the company told Yahoo Finance that raters don’t qualify because they “can work for multiple companies at a time, and do not have access to Google’s systems and/or badges,” as laid out in Google’s extended workforce policy.
The wage increase is a major victory for AWU, which consists of both employees and contractors at Google’s parent company. The raise marks the first time workers have won a wage increase after enlisting the union to apply pressure. Unlike a traditional union, AWU does not have collective bargaining power, instead pushing the company toward reform through activism and organization efforts.
In May, the union published an open letter to Prabhakar Raghavan, Google’s senior vice president of search, ads and several of the company’s other most important divisions, demanding a pay increase for raters.
“We believe that the integrity and quality of Search ultimately depends on the unseen labor of these workers,” the letter said. “If these workers themselves are not reflective of a typical search user (due to their poverty), Search itself will be unrepresentative of our typical user. Ultimately this will only harm Alphabet’s bottom line.”
Raters also appealed to company leadership at Appen. They deluged executives and human resources staff with personal testimonies in a reply-all email chain. In October, a group of six raters met with Appen then-CEO Mark Brayan to advocate for the raise, said Michelle Curtis, an Idaho-based rater who has been doing the job since 2014. After that, Appen met with Google to discuss wage increases. Curtis said the onus is on both companies to make sure workers are paid fairly. “The system seems to be designed to almost exploit this hidden workforce,” she told Forbes. “We are calling on Google to ensure that Appen is upholding their end of the responsibility to us as contract workers.”
The wage increase is only the latest case of labor activism for Google workers, who have a rich history of protest. In 2018, more than 20,000 workers walked out of Google offices around the globe to protest the company’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Andy Rubin, creator of Google’s Android operating system. Workers have also protested Google’s work in China, contracts with the Pentagon, and decision to terminate workers who spoke out against the company.