Workplace: Fixing the gig economy
An online transcription startup is “the latest symbol of a gig-economy company whose workers are fed up,” said Nathaniel Popper in The New York Times. Rev.com was already paying contractors so little that some had turned to food stamps. But earlier this month, the startup announced it planned to start taking even more money off the top for basic jobs, keeping for itself 50 to 70 percent of what it charges clients. That’s an extraordinary share even compared with other gig economy companies, such as Uber, which takes about 25 percent. The average transcriber would earn “$4.50 for an hour of work.” That “proved to be the breaking point” for some workers, who made their grievances public last week. The same week, couriers for delivery company Instacart went on strike after changes that cut their tips. Amid these mobilization efforts, “worker-owned apps are trying to fix the exploitation” by offering transparent pricing and fairer wages, said Ryan Hayes in Vice.com. Up & Go, a home-cleaning app, takes only a 5 percent cut of the revenues and guarantees workers earn $25 per hour. Eva, a worker-owned ride-hailing app that recently launched in Canada, promises to be “like Uber,” except that drivers will keep 85 percent of their fares.
I spent several weeks dwelling at the very bottom of the gig economy as a freelance worker for Mechanical Turk, said Andy Newman in The New York Times. The site, owned by Amazon, enlists contractors—some working full-time—to help other companies complete “tasks that computers cannot yet easily do.” That may be “transcribing an invoice or taking part in a study or labeling photographs to train an artificial intelligence program.” Most of the tasks pay pennies. Mine included tagging “blurry, surveillance-looking photos of construction workers on job sites according to whether they were wearing hard hats or harnesses.” Overall, I completed 221 tasks in a little over eight hours “of dedicated turking” and earned “a grand total of $7.83.”
All these stories of exploited freelancers have spurred efforts to “help” gig workers—but regulation may cost them their jobs, said Bonnie Kristian in TheWeek.com. A new law set to go into effect in California promises to give gig workers the protections and benefits that employees get. It’s supposed to target abuses by big companies like Amazon, Uber, and Lyft. But its real effect will be to eliminate many kinds of creative work. Take journalists and other freelance writers: They have to be treated as employees if they write more than 35 articles a year for one outlet. At that point, most outlets will just tell freelancers to stop writing. “I’d hit my limit here in less than nine weeks.” There’s a big rush to legislate the gig economy out of existence, but “legislators know much less about what’s best for other people’s lives than they imagine.” ■