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New Report Suggests a Way to Make the Gig Economy More Fair

The findings of a study commissioned by the U.K. government are a good first step for gig workers everywhere.

The rise of the gig economy has given millions of people the opportunity to work flexible hours and earn money whenever they want. But it has also left many of those people in a kind of employment limbo, dependent on companies like Uber, Lyft, Fiverr, and others for a large chunk of their income without access to the benefits that normal employees usually get.

Something has to give. A report commissioned by the U.K. government and released Tuesday argues that the country’s more than one million people who currently rely on the gig economy for their livelihood are, essentially, being taken advantage of—they assume all the risk of employment with little to no support from the companies they serve.

Matthew Taylor, head of the Royal Society of Arts, was the study’s lead author. He told the BBC that the country needs to come up with a set of laws to protect what he called “dependent contractors”—people who are neither self-employed nor full employees. The key criterion, he said, is whether a company “controls and supervises” an employee.

“If you are being controlled and supervised, then probably you are a worker and you should get workers’ rights,” Taylor said. “And also, the organization that employs you should be paying national insurance.” Prime Minister Theresa May largely echoed Taylor’s comments, saying the country’s economy must remain “open and innovative” in the face of a changing labor market.

Such a report is at best a baby step toward meaningful change. But it’s a bit better than where things stand in the U.S. In May, Virginia senator Mark Warner proposed a bill that would allocate $20 million to simply study how a benefits system might be designed for gig workers. He has also advocated for a host of seemingly logical responses to the changing nature of employment in America—but unfortunately, he seems to be largely on his own in Washington.

Meanwhile, despite the occasional meager class action settlement, gig employers continue to get away with treating their labor force as non-employees. And while the U.K. government’s report does indeed show that 60 percent of people who identify as gig workers are happy with their flexibility, it’s pretty much inarguable at this point that companies are doing as much as they can to, as Taylor put it, control and supervise those workers—sometimes without their even knowing it.

(Read more: BBC, The Atlantic, “Is the Gig Economy Rigged?,” “Uber is Engaged in Psychological Warfare with Its Drivers”)