The NSW government needs to do more to protect gig economy workers from exploitation if the state is to continue taking advantage of ride share and delivery services, a parliamentary inquiry has found.
Handing down its first report, a NSW committee on the impacts of technology on the future of work has recommended the government build in greater legislative protections for gig economy workers and should require platforms to be more transparent about their workers’ payments.
The committee has now published 22 recommendations following two years’ worth of hearings in which it learned how the ‘independent contractors’ hired by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Menulog are treated.
Committee Chair Daniel Mookhey said the lack of minimum wages, paid leave, and poor safety standards have been a major concern for the inquiry.
“The cyclist who delivers our Friday night takeaway receives next to none of the conditions long considered fair and decent across Australia,” he said.
“The job itself also puts workers in very real danger of injury, abuse and harassment.
“From extensive evidence over eight hearings to date, the committee has concluded that current laws perpetuate the overwhelming power imbalance between lone 'contractors' and multinational platform companies, rather than mitigating it.”
Gig economy workers are typically classified as ‘independent contractors’, not employees, allowing the companies that pay them to forego penalty rates, leave arrangements, and other benefits associated with being an employee.
For the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Amazon among others, ‘independent contractors’ have opened space for them operate lean, scalable businesses that can tap into casual workforces in markets around the world.
Likewise, fast food chains and restaurants that didn’t run their own delivery services could latch onto platforms and send their products to customers’ homes.
True cost of delivery
The committee heard of further economic benefits from the gig economy’s freedom in NSW such as job creation, a lower barrier of entry for work, and the ability for full- or part-time workers to earn supplementary income.
For workers – the platforms profess – one major benefit of gig economy work is flexibility of hours, something Amazon alludes to with the name of its ‘last-mile’ delivery platform Amazon Flex which must now pay its NSW gig economy drivers a minimum hourly rate.
But the flipside of this highly casualised work, as noted by Mookhey, is a severe lack of income protection, convoluted dispute resolution systems, and difficult working conditions that led to at least five deaths in Australia in late 2020.
“Inquiry participants advised the committee that a primary way that rideshare and food delivery platforms exert a high level of control over their workers is through their models of algorithmic management,” the inquiry’s first report said.
“This is because these platforms' algorithms determine the allocation, remuneration, chastisement and even the termination of labour.”
Workers said they felt pushed by the algorithms to deliver food faster and are “encouraged to take health and safety risks to support themselves and their families”.
When workers are injured or killed at work, platforms tend to hide behind the ‘independent contractor’ status of their workers to avoid paying comensation.
In the US, the classification of workers as ‘independent contractors’ has led to recent stories about workers’ families still having to pay for funerals after their loved ones were murdered on the job.
Possible protections for gig economy workers recommended by the committee include legislative changes to provide food delivery and rideshare drivers with the same protections as independent transport workers.
The government has also been recommended to establish a “system of collective bargaining” for gig economy workers.
Temporary residents, students, and people who speak a second language at home are all more likely to be gig economy workers, which is most common among young males aged 18-34.