Minimum wages, job security and better conditions could come for millions of Australian workers in the so-called ‘gig economy’.
The federal government is deliberating new legislation to increase job security for millions of Australian workers, while new platforms with better conditions and a labor shortage are making it harder for apps to attract people to work.
“We’re basically just letting it rip,” says Giuseppe Carabetta, associate professor of labor law at UTS Business School, of the explosive growth of the gig employment model.
This is the gig
The gig economy is task-based work made available through online platforms.
Consumers embraced grocery delivery and private transportation services like Uber and DiDi, but workers were mired in a legal quagmire: They were treated as independent contractors while being heavily dependent on specific apps.
“Gig workers kind of sit in the middle because they have the independence that traditional contractors have. And many of them like this independence, this freedom,” says Dr. Carabetta.
“But on the other hand, they move, croak and swim like ducks. So they look like employees because in reality they can be seriously controlled.”
The growth of gig work has challenged traditional employment.
When Nicola Harrod needed the help of a disability carer, she used an app to locate Gwenyth Todd.
“You need it to survive,” she says.
“It’s your basic living things that everyone has to do.
“Everyone has to eat, everyone has to shower. Everyone has to go to medical appointments to keep us alive.
“So yes, just surviving and being alive is crucial. As well as obviously having a life.”
Work can be intimate and personal, so it’s important for Nicola to have a co-worker she feels comfortable with.
“I don’t order anything from McDonald’s through Uber. It’s different.”
Gwenyth enjoys the empowerment she gives her clients and how it works with her life too.
“I have about nine or ten clients at the moment. I’m close to everyone and they’re all very flexible,” she explains.
“It’s a very special relationship. You enter someone’s house, you enter their life.
“There’s nothing clinical about it. If you don’t get along, it won’t work.”
They connected via the Hireup app, and the way Gwenyth is busy hints at where the gig economy could be headed.
When Hireup launched in 2015, Jordan O’Reilly and his co-founder and sister Laura O’Reilly were encouraged to treat workers as independent contractors.
“The problem with the cross-industry gig economy is that it reduces and lowers workers’ entitlements, rights and protections,” says Jordan O’Reilly. “And in our space, we see that a lot.”
Instead, workers like Gwenyth are employed on industry-standard wages, with a minimum wage, pension plans, and insurance coverage.
“We wanted to create a platform that not only gives people flexibility and autonomy, choice and control, but we also wanted to treat workers well and make sure that as the company grows we can protect the rights and entitlements that people work with disability support employees have enjoyed in the past and should enjoy in the future,” says Mr. O’Reilley, proud of the way the company is set up.
“We think it’s a great model for the future. We believe it represents the best technology with the best working conditions that workers are entitled to.”
But Hireup competes with companies that don’t meet those employment commitments, and it’s getting harder and harder.
“Without change, without a really close look at how the gig economy is growing across sectors, I think we’re going to lose something that we really value here in Australia, which is workers’ rights and entitlements and protections,” Mr argues O’Reilly.
change is coming
Former Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James conducted an inquiry into the gig economy for the Victorian Government, which questioned the lack of transparency about workers’ entitlements and the ‘take it or leave it’ contracts on offer, noting how all the power or “lever” was with the platforms.
“There’s a lot of variation, a huge variety of people accessing work this way, from professionals, sales, marketing, skilled workers to your food and food delivery and ride-sharing drivers and caring workers,” she told NewsBreakfast when she published the report in July 2020.
“We have to ask the question: are we comfortable with this lack of standards or protections for these vulnerable, vulnerable people, migrant workers, visa holders and young workers in what is currently quite a hostile labor market? “
Now Ms James has a new job as Secretary to the Department for Employment and Industrial Relations.
Her promotion does not mean that every recommendation in her report will become law, but it does provide an indication of the direction things are taking.
In legislation planned for next year, the government will seek to cement campaign promises, including the creation of a new category of “worker-like workers” and the power to set minimum standards for industry ombudsman, the Fair Work Commission.
These changes together would improve safety and conditions for gig workers, and force changes to the model of global giants like Uber.
Tinker with work
Looking at the rocky landscape of changes in industrial relations – something governments are struggling with – Giuseppe Carabetta cites this as a starting point.
“And we have [Workplace Relations Minister] Tony Burke keeps saying that if not, there will be a race to the bottom,” he says.
The low unemployment rate is another element that could force a change in gig models.
With work harder to find – and more vacancies than unemployed – the proportion of workers changing jobs has hit a 10-year high.
With a tight labor market and sluggish wage growth, Dr. Carabetta a government ready to address potential criticism as it reshapes the concept of ‘work’.
“I firmly believe that now is the right time. And I think the government itself has said that without over-regulating the sector, it’s not going to negotiate that very idea of ’floor conditions’.”