Can You Just Walk Away From the Gig Economy?

By Mikele Prestia
delivery person on bike

Last month in Sydney a 37-year-old Malaysian man, whose name has not yet been disclosed, was riding his bike to deliver a meal for UberEats when he was hit by a truck and killed. His death is the most recent of five delivery drivers killed on Australian roads in the last three months, further intensifying the scrutiny of working conditions within the gig economy.

The term ‘gig work’ describes independent flexible work at the cost of employment regulation control and benefits. Gig work is not a new phenomenon: during the Great Depression of the 1930s, many farmers were forced to sell their land and move from farm to farm assisting other farmers with their harvests. Nor is it going away any time soon; if anything, the gig economy is subsuming more of the Australian economy than ever. 

The current proliferation of gig work must be discussed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its subsequent reshaping of global economies.

As historian Yuval Noah Harari noted, pandemics have a way of “accelerating history,” meaning change occurring incrementally over previous years has begun increasing at warp speed. The practice of working from home, anomalous in most workplaces before the pandemic, is quickly becoming the norm. Similarly, the gig economy — a continual but relatively small portion of the OECD economy in the previous century — has grown rapidly in 2020. 

More people than ever are being forced into insecure work, while the actual amount of work available is stretched thinly across more and more people. 

Of the 111,000 new jobs created in Australia in August this year, the vast majority of these were within the gig economy. Despite this seemingly impressive figure of new jobs during a recession, the overall increase in hours worked rose by only 0.1%. This second statistic paints a truer picture of the current state of employment in Australia. More people than ever are being forced into insecure work, while the actual amount of work available is stretched thinly across more and more people. 

Former Deliveroo driver, Diego Franco, speaking to the ABC, testified to the pressure drivers feel to deliver things quickly: “As fast as you can, and as safe as possible…the more orders you get, [the] more money you make.” Franco’s services were terminated without notice by Deliveroo in April for taking “significantly longer” than expected. Franco rejects this, “If I’d been told there was an issue with my work, I would have done something about it. I wasn’t told at all.” 

The incessant pressure for faster delivery times is exacerbated by the poor pay offered by delivery companies. A survey conducted by the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) found that, in 2020, drivers working for companies like UberEats and Deliveroo, were earning $10 an hour on average — nearly half the Australian minimum wage of $19.84. Companies like Uber are able to circumvent industrial relations laws in Australia because they do not technically employ their workers, and are therefore not required to treat their workers as employees. 

This troubling dynamic was confirmed by the Fair Work Ombudsman in June 2019. In her summation of a two-year-long investigation into Uber, Ombudsman Sandra Parker stated the definitive aspect of an employment relationship — an aspect missing in the relationship between Uber and its drivers — was the power of an employer to obligate its employee to perform a duty on demand. Parker’s logic followed that drivers in the gig economy had a certain degree of “control over whether, when and for how long they perform work, on any given day or any given week.” In essence: workers in the gig economy always have the option to walk away. However, even the most fanciful imagining of what might lead a person to work in the gig economy would still render the Ombudsman’s definition puzzling. 

While jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, Spain and France have rejected the premise that Uber drivers are self-employed people “partnering” with international corporations to “start their business” — as Uber argued unsuccessfully before the United Kingdom Employment Tribunal — gig economy workers in Australia remain particularly vulnerable.

Andrew Stewart, an Employment Law Professor at the University of Adelaide, says the legality of companies such as Uber continues to be precarious at best. “The central issue is not just whether there must be a pre-existing obligation to work, but whether that obligation can arise in a practical sense from the way Uber structures its operations,’ said Stewart. 

Not only are the conditions in which drivers must work fraught with precarity, those who work in the gig economy are also overwhelmingly from demographics excluded from social welfare

With the average wage offered in the gig economy requiring a driver to work 12 hours a day, five days a week, to earn a minimum wage, it is easy to see how an obligation to work can not only arise but endanger the safety of the workers themselves. This is 50% longer than the standard workday and does not include paid lunch breaks.

TWU national secretary, Michael Kaine, described the vulnerability that arises in the absence of regulated work: “You have these massive companies who force these workers to be classified as independent contractors and that means they don’t get the same protections that other employees across the economy enjoy.”

The business model for companies such as Uber relies on contracting vulnerable workers that are low cost, without benefit entitlements, and on easily terminable contracts. Not only are the conditions in which drivers must work fraught with precarity, those who work in the gig economy are also overwhelmingly from demographics excluded from social welfare by virtue of their status in Australia. As unemployment has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic and a larger pool of applicants vie for a diminishing number of jobs this year, a reliance on gig work by people ineligible for welfare payments is to be expected. If it is the only choice someone is given to protect their livelihood, or that of their family, does the Ombudsman’s statement still stand? Are gig workers actually free to walk away?

You can contribute to support families of killed gig workers here: https://deliveryriders.raisely.com/ (organised by the Transport Workers Union)

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