The gig economy is in “crisis” and there is a need for urgent action from the federal government after the deaths of five delivery riders in Australia in the last two months, Transport Workers’ Union national secretary Michael Kaine said.
On Monday night an UberEats rider died following an accident on a road in Sydney’s CBD. He is the fifth delivery rider to die on Australian roads in just the last two months.
The recent tragedies have reignited calls for the federal government to step in and regulate the gig economy, especially on the definition of employee and private contractor, to ensure gig economy workers are afforded the same benefits and protections employees receive.
The federal government has largely brushed aside concerns and said regulation of the gig economy is a matter for state governments.
With four of the recent deaths happening in Sydney, the New South Wales government has this week established a taskforce to investigate if improvements are needed to improve the safety of delivery riders, while the Victorian government considers to consult on the final recommendations of its inquiry into the on-demand economy.
This push for federal regulation is being driven by the Transport Workers’ Union, which has been bringing attention to the recent deaths and campaigning on the issue for several years.
Its national secretary, Mr Kaine, said action is needed to better protect workers in the gig economy, especially delivery riders.
“We’re now in a position where it’s quite clear there is a crisis here. Workers are under incredible pressure – they are left to their own devices, they’re not trained and they’re given no protective equipment to support them when working,” Mr Kaine told InnovationAus.
“They’re left at the whim of a company and an algorithm. They have to answer jobs in seconds and if they fail to do that they can be kicked off the platform. There’s a perfect storm against them – it’s a recipe for disaster. The time has come for urgent action.
Delivery riders are not given adequate training, proper safety gear or provided with insurance, and their families are not afforded compensation, Mr Kaine said.
The TWU this week wrote to federal Workplace Relations Minister Christian Porter calling for an urgent inquiry into food delivery companies such as UberEats.
“We’ve written to him before and he simply relies on the old fashioned notion of employee and independent contractor. The time has come in the modern economy to accept that is not good enough. We’ve called on him to lodge an urgent inquiry to investigate UberEats and other food delivery platforms,” Mr Kaine said.
The federal government should also establish a tribunal to inquiry into the gig economy and hold the tech companies to account, he said.
In response, Mr Porter said that the safety of delivery riders is a matter for state governments, but rider safety will be included as a priority agenda at the next meeting of national work health and safety ministers.
“Every worker, no matter how their employment arrangements are structured, has the right to a safe working environment and to come home to their families at the end of each day. For delivery riders, maintaining that safe work environment is a state and territory government responsibility,” Mr Porter said in a statement to InnovationAus.
“However, it is clear that a problem exists in relation to delivery riders and changes need to be made by state and territory governments to prevent further injuries or loss of life. While the Commonwealth has no direct authority to make changes in this area, it can play a leadership role on issues such as this.”
But Mr Kaine said that while state governments have a “residual function” in schemes such as worker compensation, the federal government can take action.
“We’re now getting to the stage where this inaction has shifted responsibility onto government. You can’t continue to ignore circumstances where workers are exploited and they’re literally dying and avoid responsibility and accountability to the community for that,” he said.
“We’ve been saying this for a very long period of time and the response we’ve been getting back is dismissive, and falls back on ancient notions of artificial legal labels and that’s not going to do the job in the modern economy. This federal government needs to get up to speed, to come into the 21st century and figure out what it is they need to be doing to make a difference.
“This is an indictment on the federal government that they are so ideologically paralysed that they can’t see what’s right in front of them – reform is needed.”
Shadow workplace relations minister Tony Burke said the federal government does have a role to play in regulating the sector and protecting delivery riders, and the claim that those completing this work are independent contractors “denies reality”.
“It’s not safe and it needs to be, it’s not secure work and it needs to be and we can’t have a situation where for the sake of convenience we put up with there being a section of the Australian workforce that effectively has no rights,” Mr Burke told ABC News.
“It’s chilling. When you think that the responsibility for their safety is being governed not by an employer but by an algorithm, that’s how they’re working. When they work, whether they work, when they get a shift and how quickly, it’s all being governed by an algorithm.”
At the state level, the NSW government this week launched a new taskforce to investigate whether the recent deaths of delivery riders in the state could have been avoided and if better protections are needed. The taskforce will be led by SafeWork NSW and Transport for NSW.
The inquiry will also inform another piece of research being conducted by the Centre for Work Health and Safety, which is examining potential regulatory reforms to improve safety in the gig economy.
In Victoria, a two-year inquiry into the on-demand workforce, led by former Fair Work Ombudsman, recommended earlier this year that the federal government take the lead on a number of significant reforms to the gig economy, including clarifying the worker status issue, a new agency to facilitate streamlined support and fast-tracked resolutions and a code of conduct.
“It was the universal view of those participating in the inquiry that any change should be led nationally. Reforms confined to a single state risk creating yet more complexity and inconsistency and could impose an unnecessary regulatory burden on national businesses,” Ms James said in the report.
“The Commonwealth is therefore best placed to deliver genuine choice, fairness and certainty for workers and business. The inquiry suggests it should grasp this opportunity to deliver the recommendations set out in this report and make balanced and fit-for-purpose revisions to the current system.”
Consultations on the final report from the inquiry closed in October, with the Victorian government now considered these and the report’s recommendations.