The federal government needs to step up and stop the exploitation of Australian gig economy workers by global tech companies, the Transport Workers Union has said.
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) on Monday morning launched a significant legal challenge against UberEats, another in a series of individual test cases aimed at challenging the common practice in the gig economy of classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees.
This classification means that delivery drivers and riders are not given any of the benefits afforded to employees, including superannuation and sick leave.
The Australian legal challenge comes just a week after California passed a bill giving gig economy workers holiday and sick pay.
The latest case is an appeal to a decision made by the Fair Work Commission (FWC), which recently ruled that an Adelaide-based food delivery driver for UberEats was not an employee and was unable to make an unfair dismissal claim against the tech giant.
But TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said these individual test cases wouldn’t be unnecessary if the government stepped up and legislated to protect the rights of workers in the gig economy.
“The federal government is in our sights here. Only last week, in contrast, California passed laws providing rights for workers in this industry. London has provided rights, New York has provided rights and we’ve got silence from this federal government,” Mr Kaine told media on Monday.
“The time has come for this government to step up. There are tens of thousands of Australians across the community being exploited by these food delivery tech giants. The time has come for change.”
The TWU wants the federal government to urgently convene a working group to design the legislation that would give more rights to workers in the gig economy and avoid “old fashioned exploitation via an app”, Mr Kaine said.
“Definitions are not the answer, the answer here is a body put in place by the federal government that has the capacity to set in place terms and conditions across classes of workers. Government knows this is the right recipe, and it should act right now to make those changes,” he said.
“The current law is flawed. We need a body in place that can set out what appropriate rights should be for workers. It should exist as a gatekeeper so these new tech behemoths can’t come in and find a way around these existing laws and definitions.”
The legal challenge against UberEats is an appeal to a ruling that the FWC was unable to rule on an unfair dismissal claim brought forward by Adelaide-based delivery driver Amita Gupta because she was not an employee of the company.
Ms Gupta and her partner Santosh completed more than 2200 UberEats deliveries from September 2017 to January this year and were paid $19,000 across this time. But the TWU said that after all associated costs were deducted, this number was closer to $10,000.
During one week, the TWU said, the couple logged on to the UberEats app to work for 96 hours but were paid just $300.
Earlier this year, Ms Gupta was 10 minutes late making a delivery, and subsequently had her access to the app revoked.
Ms Gupta took the case of unfair dismissal to the Fair Work Commission earlier this month, which ruled that she was not an employee and therefore unable to make such a claim.
The TWU is now appealing this decision, saying that the Commission did not take into account that Ms Gupta wasn’t operating her own business and that UberEats has a large degree of control over her work and how she was paid.
“This is exploitation. They have to wait on the end of an app for work to come their way – this is the hungry road in the new modern era,” Mr Kaine said.
“When you have workers that are having to wait at the end of an app for 96 hours and be paid only $300 you have something terribly wrong in our community. This is a scam, and a scam of massive proportions.”
Addressing the media on Monday, Mr Gupta said the gig economy is “slavery in the modern world”.
“We are living in Australia, where people have good rights and conditions to live and yet still people are treating workers like slaves. They are so pathetic,” he said.
“They are exploiting the rights of the people. I’m very happy that the TWU have taken up the case and they’re fighting for the rights of the people.”
The union has been campaigning for years for the federal government to make legislative changes to ensure workers in the gig economy are afforded basic rights that are given to employees.
Last year the TWU won a case, also at the Fair Work Commission, against Foodora, with the commission ruling that a rider for the company was an employee. The food delivery company soon left Australian shores.
The union is also calling on Attorney-General Christian Porter to intervene in the case.
“We will be fighting this case and saying to the Fair Work Commission that these workers are employees and they are entitled to rights. We will be calling on Christian Porter to intervene and support that case,” Mr Kaine said.
The TWU has also launched a FWC case against food delivery giant Deliveroo for allegedly underpaying one of its delivery riders.
With a lack of action at a federal level, state governments are making efforts to strengthen worker protections in the gig economy.
Last week the Victorian government legislated to extend the state-based dispute resolution system to the likes of UberEats and Deliveroo, protecting drivers and riders from safety, income and business risks.