Gig economy grey area

By Meg Hill

In November last year, food delivery drivers working for platforms like UberEats in the CBD were targeted in a Victoria Police traffic operation. Two hundred infringement notices were issued, with at least a quarter of offences relating to delivery bike users.

A state government report into Victoria’s “gig economy” workforce is due by March 31. As a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic it will likely be delayed.

But social distancing and self-isolation has already made us even more reliant on gig-workers. As we go out less, and businesses begin to close public areas, there may still be many delivery riders out on our streets bringing us our food.

In 2018, when the state government commissioned an inquiry into the workforce, its background report estimated that about 80,000 people in Australia earned income through “peer-to-peer” platforms like Uber, UberEats and Deliveroo.

But there is a lack of certainty from legal professionals and government regarding the status and rights of workers across the “gig economy”.

Associate professor at the University of Melbourne Alysia Blackham said Australia needed to ensure our laws were protecting those workers.

“The issues relate to how well our laws extend to people who don’t fit our traditional idea of an employee,” she said.

“The way many platforms have been set up is to say the relationship is not between the platform and the Deliveroo rider, but between the consumer and the rider.”

“Platforms are trying to take themselves out of the equation and limit their responsibility.”

This potentially means if a rider causes an accident, they would be held personally responsible, even if it’s caused by poor training and conditions. Conversely, if a rider has a problem with their employment, it is hard for them to prove they have a relationship with the platform, not the consumer.

When booked for infringements, riders are held responsible as individuals. Riders that were issued infringements in last year’s police operation told The Age their fine amounted to their entire day’s wage.

The government’s 2018 report said it was difficult for these workers to earn “sufficient and fair remuneration” – many earning under the minimum wage.

“On-demand platforms allow employers to select at will from a pool of workers who often rely on positive ratings for continued work,” the report stated.

The report went on to state those factors contributed to “workers accepting low wages and inferior conditions”.

Furthermore, vulnerable workers from a range of demographics were overrepresented in these precarious forms of work, including many young workers, visa holders and women.

Many of the pressures felt by delivery riders, on top of their precarious and vulnerable starting point, may push them to sacrifice safety and road rules. They are often rated on the speed of their deliveries and need to use their mobiles to accept new jobs quickly.

And it is unclear whether or not there is proper training and information given to riders, who often use electric driven bikes or scooters.

Associate professor Blackham said the issue was about a safe system of work.

“It all comes back to the question of safe systems of work and if there is a way to do the job safely while meeting the platform requirements. We need greater transparency around how these platforms are operating,” she said.

“There are a lot of incentives built into these jobs that don’t encourage safe behaviour, and employers have a duty to not only their employees and contractors, but to other people in the community.”

“And the question comes back to enforcement, too. How do you make sure platforms are meeting their requirements, and how do you make sure workers are able to pursue their rights?” •

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