I Was a High-Tech Sweatshop Worker for the Obama Campaign

Why did the candidate of hope and change use workers paid less than half of the minimum wage?


Middletown, New York—I wake up at 3:00 AM and I'm already late for work. Fortunately I don't have far to go. Taking care not to wake my wife, I remove the laptop from the bedroom desk and move it into the main computer room on the other side of the apartment. I don't want to use my aging desktop with the big monitor; it can't handle the traffic as fast as I need it to if I want to maximize my earnings.

As an expeditor for ChaCha Search Inc., a business that specializes in answering questions sent by text message, email, and voice mail, my job is to take the queries as they come in, make them readable, categorize them, and forward them to a "guide" who finds the answer—ideally within 2-3 minutes—and relays it back to the customer. It's a free service, with revenue generated by advertisements sent via text message or attached to the answer itself.

So I boot up, log in, and start processing the queries. The faster I work the more money I make. The shift passes with a few bursts of frenetic activity breaking up long stretches where the queries come in every one or two minutes. At 6:30 AM, I calculate my earnings. I've made about $5 in three hours.

For every query I expedite, I make three cents. If traffic is heavy, and when I'm in top form, I can average four queries per minute, or $7.20 an hour—but these high volume periods are rare. I calculate my career average to be approximately $2.85 per hour. That's less than half of the federal minimum wage. ChaCha Search Inc., in other words, is a high-tech 21st century sweatshop.

Headquartered in Carmel, Indiana, ChaCha has approximately 55,000 home-working guides and expeditors under contract. The expeditors are all paid the piece rate described above; the guides receive 10 or 20 cents per query, depending on the quality of their answers and their level of expertise. It's a young, hip company whose advertisers have included AT&T, McDonald's, and the Barack Obama presidential campaign.

The Obama campaign's use of ChaCha was simple and brilliant. Messages would go out advising customers to vote early for Obama and to text back the keyword OBAMA for more information. That would direct them to pro-Obama websites such as VoteForChange.com. If the keyword failed to trigger the automatic response, an expeditor like me would route it to a guide.

Here's the question: Did Obama have personal knowledge of ChaCha's employment practices? His campaign's use of the company was certainly no secret. ChaCha proudly displays an article on its website from USA Today describing their partnership—though the article makes no mention of the compensation received by expeditors and guides.

For its part, ChaCha exemplifies the best and worst of today's Internet economy. The company was more than willing to profit from Obama's candidacy, yet if federal minimum wage laws applied to its home-working contractors, ChaCha wouldn't stay in business for long.

Does Obama's relationship with ChaCha matter? Consider his own words, first spoken during a March 2008 campaign appearance in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and later incorporated into his campaign infomercial (transcribed here by Time's Mark Halperin): "If they're able and willing to work, they should be able to find a job that pays a living wage." Obama also favors raising the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011. But despite all of that lofty talk, his campaign still employed ChaCha's high-tech sweatshop labor.

Think about it like this. Obama sold the ideas of hope and change to America's desperate working and lower-middle classes. But it was only a campaign tactic. The Democrats continue to enable and reward the same incompetence, corruption, and corporate welfare that characterized the Bush administration. A stimulus check of $2000 to every American without regard to age, income, or assets would have been less expensive (and probably more effective) than the Bush-Obama bailouts. Give money to the original owners—the taxpayers—and send those corporate losers to the back of the line.

Better yet, what about a truly free market, one that actually lets economic dinosaurs go extinct, rather than keeping them alive via the life support of statist policies and practices. Conversely, if workers stopped expecting help from the state, they might begin to protect their interests as vigorously as the elite promote their own agenda.

Of course none of that will be happening anytime soon. But when it comes to holding the president accountable to his own flowery rhetoric, the time is ripe for some change we can finally believe in.

Dan Mage is a writer living in Middletown, New York. A two-time dropout of Naropa University, he is the owner and creator of www.freneticmemetics.com.