The army of contractor-linguists who power Google Assistant say they had their wages stolen

The reason Google Assistant (that's the product you invoke when you say "OK Google" to your device) works reasonably well is that the Pygmalion team -- a small army of linguists -- work long hours handcrafting variations on common phrases ("set a timer for five minutes," "remind me in five minutes," "in five minutes, remind me...") and grammars that allow the system to correctly respond to your queries.

These linguists (who have to have at least a bachelor's degree, though many have attained master's degrees and doctorates) are not googlers, though: they are contracted to Google by an employment agencies, including Adecco. That means that even though they work on the same campuses as Google employees and ride the same Google Bus to get to work, they only receive a fraction of the wages and benefits that employees earn, and they're not even allowed to use the wifi on the Google Bus during hours-long commutes.

But that's just for starters. The Google Assistant linguists say that their googler supervisors used the dangled promise of being hired by the company to bully them into working huge amounts of off-the-clock overtime, to hit performance metrics that would be considered when they applied for full-time work. Googlers who spoke anonymously to Julia Carrie Wong for The Guardian said that they were tacitly incentivized to get unpaid work out of contractors, and were open mocked when they raised concerns about the ethics of the situation.

Some contract linguists reasoned that the unpaid overtime was a trade-off against being able to list Google on their resumes in future jobs, only to discover that the fine-print in their contracts stipulated that they couldn't do that, instead, they'd have to say they worked at "Google by Adecco."

Google and Adecco have launched investigations into allegations of unpaid overtime -- which is a form of wage theft and illegal under federal labor law -- and have called on contractors who worked unpaid hours to submit time-sheets for compensation. One of Wong's sources said that they didn't keep track of these hours and there's no way for them to claim them back.

Google has long been notorious for its two-tier system: well-paid googlers on the top tier, and "temps, vendors and contractors" (TVCs) on the bottom.

The associate linguist was one of several who said that they took the position at Google in hopes that they could eventually convert to a full-time position. Several members of Pygmalion are former contract workers, including the current head of the team, who took over when Ha, the executive who founded the team, moved on to another project.

“People did [unpaid overtime] because they were dangled the opportunity of becoming a full-time employee, which is against company policy,” a current Googler said. “There’s a particular leveraging of people’s desire to become full time,” said another.

“When I was hired, I was very explicitly told that there is no ladder,” a current contract worker said. “‘This is not a temp-to-hire position. There is no moving up’ … But the reality on the team is very much one where there is clearly a ladder. A certain percentage of the associate linguists will get project manager. A certain percentage of project managers get converted to full time. We watch it happen, and they dangle that carrot.”

One Googler who successfully converted to a full-time position after working as a temp on Pygmalion said that at times the bargain was even made explicit. In April 2017, they recalled, Ha attended a meeting of outsourced Pygmalion project managers in London and “explain[ed] that the position was designed for conversion and that we should be proactive in asking for more work in order to achieve this”.

'A white-collar sweatshop': Google Assistant contractors allege wage theft [Julia Carrie Wong/The Guardian]

(via /.)

(Image: Cristiano, CC-BY)