article

06.22.11

Will Work for 25 Cents an Hour!

How bad is the job market? Tom Weber chronicles the lowest hourly wage that Americans, and others around the world, will accept for an hour of work.

How much would I have to pay you to listen for an hour while I recite, in monotone, about a half-century-old Richard Nixon speech? Ten bucks? Twenty? At the least, the minimum wage provides a federally mandated floor; and in many prosperous regions, even the most menial task commands a good deal more.

But with unemployment overall sticking stubbornly around 9 percent—and even that figure grossly underestimating the number of Americans who want work but can’t get it—there are also workers willing to settle for less. Far less.

To find out this country’s real minimum wage—the market-proven low that U.S. workers will accept for an hour’s work—The Daily Beast designed an experiment. Over several weeks, we used Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace for freelance work operated by Amazon.com, to post simple, hour-long jobs to see how much or how little we’d need to pay workers.

Specifically, we offered to hire people who would listen to a one-hour recording of me reading snippets from old articles along with an excerpt from Nixon’s “Checkers” speech. The recording was sprinkled with repeated instances of unusual key words, such as “polyunsaturated” and “knuckleduster.” The proposition to our potential workers: Download the audio file, listen to the hour long recording and count the instances of a key word we specified, and get paid.

Each time a worker accomplished the task, we reposted the job at a lower wage, and repeated as necessary until we found the absolute bottom price that gave us takers. To make sure that one particularly desperate person didn’t skew the results, we would only consider a bottom wage that had three different workers who accepted and completed the task (we checked their results for accuracy to make sure they definitely completed the assignment). Finally, in this age of global outsourcing, we repeated this process in a dozen countries—Mechanical Turk lets you specify the nation you hire from, and confirms residence by requiring tax information—to see how the U.S. stacks up.

Each time a worker accomplished the task, we reposted the job at a lower wage.

While every country’s workers came in well under the U.S. minimum wage, there were major fluctuations. The three most expensive countries ($5 an hour) were Italy, the Netherlands—and Egypt. The latter result surely had two factors: First, we were only hiring people technologically sophisticated enough to know about and use Mechanical Turk, and proficient enough in English to make sense of my sonorous podcast; second, while we targeted countries with a critical mass using Amazon’s system, the total numbers competing for work (Egypt was on the low end, and America appeared to have the most, by far) drove supply and demand.

That said, we were able to find tech-savvy Germans keen to work for $3 an hour. Workers in Pakistan and the Philippines who endured my voice for $2.50 and $2.25 an hour, respectively. And residents of industrialized giants like Australia ($2), the U.K. ($2), and Canada ($1.25) who would work for an hour and not even earn enough for a cup of coffee.

At a buck an hour each, India and Romania brought up the rear. And the cheapest of all labor markets? The United States of America, where we were able to hire three workers to do our job for a shockingly low figure: 25 cents an hour.

Perhaps these were 13-year-olds sneakily trying to supplement their allowance (Mechanical Turk, which serves as a middleman for the transaction, doesn’t clue you in on your new employee’s identity). Perhaps some people thought ticking off words from my greatest hits might actually be like getting paid for entertainment. But both of those factors could have been true for the other countries, all of which had enough Mechanical Turk devotees to matter. Bottom line: For those running digital sweatshops, American labor proved the cheapest around.