Google is terminating its contract with Appen, a third-party company responsible for training its search algorithm, the contractor said in a statement to investors on Monday. The company said that Google’s contracts brought in $82.8 million and accounted for 26 percent of its revenue.
The decision will ultimately impact over 2,000 subcontracted Alphabet workers. That would affect roughly 10 percent of Google’s rater workforce, which the company has previously said amounts to 16,000 raters. The announcement comes after study published last week by German researchers found Google’s search results have gotten worse as AI-generated content proliferates and the company struggles to keep up by tweaking algorithms.
"These workers provide critical support that keeps Google’s flagship Search results and Bard AI safe and functional for the company’s billions of users," the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA, which represents nearly 1,500 workers employed or contracted by Google’s parent company, said in a statement.
The workers in question are employed by RaterLabs, an Appen subsidiary specializing in search engine evaluation. They are responsible for training Google’s search algorithm by testing search queries and rating the accuracy and relevance of the results. Last February, workers successfully won a $15 per hour wage by organizing with the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA.
“This news should be a wake up call for workers in the tech industry and anyone concerned about the impacts of AI on working people,” union executive board secretary Toni Allen said in a statement. “As subcontractors for Google, we have been a canary in the AI coal mine calling out the precarious labor conditions we face being the human workers standing between large language models and their end users. This is what AI work looks like when workers have no say in the process.”
Appen wrote that it had “no prior knowledge” of Google’s decision, which will go into effect this March. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The AWU-CWA stated in a press release that workers had been fighting for years against the “poverty wages and harmful working conditions” they experienced at RaterLabs. Before their successful fight for a pay raise last year, workers earned as little as $10 per hour. Appen said in its statement to investors that its $83 million revenue from Google accounted for 26 percent of its total. An Appen spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Workers responsible for training AI or filtering search algorithm results in the tech industry often face such working conditions. A 2023 Time investigation found that OpenAI paid Kenyan workers $2 per hour to filter traumatic content from ChatGPT training data. Motherboard has reported on the human effort behind artificial intelligence.
A Google spokesperson told Search Engine Land that the decision to terminate Appen’s contract came “as part of our ongoing effort to evaluate and adjust many of our supplier partnerships across Alphabet to ensure our vendor operations are as efficient as possible,” and that it would continue working with other rating companies.
The AWU-CWA has also supported other organizing efforts throughout Google’s vast network of contractors. YouTube Music contract workers unanimously won their union election last year. When the bargaining unit demanded that Google negotiate a contract, however, the company refused, claiming that it did not directly employ the workers and could not be held responsible for their working conditions.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled earlier this month that Google is a joint employer of the YouTube Music workers and is therefore obligated to bargain. No sessions have yet taken place.