Google has severed ties with Appen, an Australian company integral to training artificial intelligence, exposing the precarious employment conditions of the often unseen “ghost workers” behind AI tools.
The termination, part of Google’s strategic review of companies providing contracting services, directly impacts several thousand Appen contractors but also hints at impacts for one million contractors in 170 countries who manually review content to enhance AI systems.
Google informed Appen of the contract termination effective March 19, 2024, signaling a shift in its AI training strategy.
Appen’s contractors, referred to as “ghost workers,” play a crucial role in training AI systems used by major tech companies like Google, Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple.
They work remotely, reviewing and labeling content such as photographs, text, and audio to refine and correct AI capabilities.
Appen reported its revenue from Google was $82.8 million in the 2023 financial year.
Following the termination announcement, the company’s share price plummeted by 40%.
Appen has seen a high number of executive turnovers in recent years and has struggled with a consistent strategy and worker relations, and Google’s move represents the tech giant’s desire to distance itself from the company.
The Alphabet Workers’ Union expressed concern, stating that the move would have a “devastating impact” on subcontracted workers.
Toni Allen, the executive board secretary of the Alphabet Workers’ Union-Communications Workers of America said, “As subcontractors for Google we have been a canary in the AI coalmine calling out the precarious labor conditions we face being the human workers standing between large language models and their end users.”
The company assured that contractors are paid above local minimum wages, but rates vary based on project complexities and expertise required.