The Venezuelan ghost workers who are feeding artificial intelligence

Within the multi-billion-dollar industry, hundreds of Venezuelans are training AI algorithms for wages that they can barely survive on

Oskarina Fuentes Venezuela
Oskarina Fuentes works on her computer.CORTESÍA

Seven years ago, the economic crisis in Venezuela forced Oskarina Fuentes to become an invisible artificial intelligence (AI) worker. Her role is to “tag” data, to improve the performance of online bots, all in exchange for the minimum amount of money required to survive.

“There’s [more data] than there are searches,” says the 33-year-old woman, who is dedicated to gathering information from companies and people, selecting the best answers to a search criteria, and moderating content, among other endless tasks. She makes mere pennies on the dollar through her Appen account.

Appen is an Australian virtual platform that compiles data for tech giants — such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google — to hone their AI systems. This is done with the help of contracted contributors from more than 170 countries, who register on the website and select the tasks they wish to perform.

Data taggers or annotators such as Fuentes provide information to computational models, so that they can make decisions — this includes everything from improving web searches to enabling more complex algorithms, like those needed for a self-driving car to work. “The AI system is watching and learning from what [these workers] do,” explains Dr. Alberto Delgado, an AI expert at the National University of Colombia.

Behind the scenes of this multi-billion-dollar industry, Fuentes makes about $200 or $300 a month, close to the minimum wage in Colombia ($209). She lives in the neighboring country with her mother, after they migrated from Venezuela in 2019. The deep economic crisis that their native country has been going through for the past decade forced many citizens to look for alternative methods to survive. Data-labelling platforms — which don’t require freelancers to have certification — became viable options to alleviate hunger.

“We are slaves to the Latin American system”

Fuentes — a petroleum engineer by training — suffers from diabetes and precarious health, which have prevented her from practicing her profession and getting another job. On Telegram, she chats with hundreds of other Venezuelans about their experiences with Appen. Like her, they can’t find any other way to survive.

The platform — valued at about $500 million, according to Australian media — sets the remuneration that its contractors receive to “exceed the minimum wage in [their] region.” This isn’t difficult to achieve in Venezuela. After more than five years of hyperinflation, the monthly minimum wage is the equivalent of $5.40.

“With a lot of effort, I manage to earn about $200 a month,” says another worker, who prefers not to reveal her name for fear of reprisals from the company. Her earnings are the result of her work on Appen and other similar websites, such as Toloka, Hive Micro, Testable Minds and PAIDERA. The money she earns is barely enough to feed herself, her husband and their two children, who have no other source of income. “The work is enslaving and poorly-paid,” says another worker named Rodríguez, who clings to these virtual tasks from the Venezuelan city of Cabimas.

Rodrigo Sircello — who does this work from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo — says that he and his partner registered with the platform in 2016, with the hope of earning a good income. “My wife constantly received emails from Appen [...] In their advertising, it said that it was a remote job and great profits could be made,” the 57-year-old man notes.

However, in 2023, he and his family are struggling to make ends meet. “Since the beginning of this year, it has been difficult to earn the minimum, which is $10 a week,” says the father of the family, who uses all the money from his tiny monthly pension as a retired librarian to pay the internet bill at his home, so that he can use use Appen. Regardless of how many years a contractor has worked on the platform, no formal links are established with the company — nor do freelancers have any guarantee of receiving tasks. In addition, their work often doesn’t match the daylight hours of the area where they are based. However, given the desperate need for income, Venezuelans are willing to log on and work at any time.

“I have trouble sleeping,” says the worker from Cabimas, who lives with the computer on “24 hours a day,” in case she receives a notification of a task at dawn that will help her make ends meet. When problems arise on the platform, the woman claims that Appen is slow to respond to complaints… if the company responds at all. “They don’t answer my emails,” the housewife sighs. Constant power outages in Venezuela make their job even more difficult.

When questioned about the treatment of their freelancers by EL PAÍS, representatives from Appen replied via email that they “deeply value their workers, because they represent the fabric of the societies where they operate,” but refrained from answering specific questions about the conditions of Venezuelans working on the platform.

Fuentes’ story first came out in April 2022, within a series of reports from the MIT Technology Review, which discuss the “colonialism of artificial intelligence.” Through several cases, the magazine reveals the power of large AI companies over freelancers from developing countries, who work in precarious conditions. The examples reinforce “the idea that AI is creating a new colonial world order.”

From that publication, Fuentes’ name was mentioned in the media around the world… but she doesn’t entirely agree with how she has been portrayed. “I don’t feel like a slave to either Appen or AI,” the young woman says. “We are slaves to the Latin American system,” she clarifies. Fuentes believes that living in a low-income region is what determines the lack of job security and income guarantees.

Earlier this year, Time magazine warned about a similar case. The company OpenAI was outsourcing work to people in Kenya, taking advantage of the impoverished economy of the African country to generate ChatGPT texts, in exchange for a payment of less than $2 an hour.

New Regulations

A lover of anime and animals, Oskarina Fuentes emphasizes that she has spoken out about her experience at Appen so that the company listens to its contractors, who are “trained and hard-working people.”

“We want them to recognize our efforts and consider us for better opportunities,” says the young woman, speaking from her residence in a town in the Colombian province of Antioquia. Delgado affirms that the problems faced by these freelancers lie in the lack of control in the market. “AI touches human beings. For this reason, ethical principles must be applied that pave the way for the regulation of the industry,” the university professor says.

Last month, the European Union and the United States announced progress in the drafting of a common “code of conduct” in the AI field, which would be applied on a voluntary basis in the future. In a manual of recommendations on the subject published in 2021, UNESCO warned that attention should be paid to lower-middle-income countries, “which are more vulnerable to the possibility of abuse [from those in a] dominant position in the market.”

Meanwhile — without the protection of regulations or guarantees, but eager to pay their bills — Fuentes and her colleagues in Venezuela want “Appen to keep working” and clamor for “more tasks” to appear. They’ll keep waiting by their computers, 24-hours-a-day, filled with the anxiety that is perfectly normal in a country that’s collapsing.

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