“The gig economy is designed to provide large corporations with a bottomless pool of expendable cheap labour – that can be dismissed or replaced with and for which they have no duty of care.”
(First Dog on the Moon)
In a period of just two months, five food delivery drivers were killed while delivering food: four in Sydney and one in Melbourne. The work is hard, dangerous, and extremely low paid. These workers have few rights, and are putting their lives at risk each day they work.
The five workers who lost their lives must be recognised and mourned: Xiaojun Chen, Dede Fredy, Chow Khai Shien, Bijoy Paul and Ik Wong.
Food delivery workers average just over $10 an hour – well below the minimum wage. And, according to some reports, since the pandemic hit the wages have decreased, because there are more people desperate for work – and so it’s even easier to exploit them. Many are foreign workers on temporary visas, such as international students. The pandemic has led to an influx of these workers, as many lost what work they had as it was casual and insecure in areas such as retail, hospitality, and cleaning.
Workers are classed as ‘independent contractors’ and often must supply their own equipment and mode of transport, and any safety gear. The companies claim these workers are ‘running their own businesses’ – as well as providing their own equipment, the can supposedly organise their own schedules, and even deliver what they want with the restaurants they want to work with. According to the companies, this limits their liabilities and duties to these workers: they don’t have to provide insurance, or sick leave, or protective gear, and have no responsibilities in terms of the safety of their bikes/motor scooters.
Of course, this is rubbish. They are essentially at the mercy of the delivery companies they are registered with, but at the moment the laws in this country are inadequate and these workers are not covered.
What are the problems?
The work is inherently hard and dangerous. But it is made much worse because there is no supervision or acceptance of duty by the companies. Not only are the rates of pay very low, but the conditions are not conducive to workers being able to work safely. There is pressure on them to work fast – because if anyone complains they can end up being blocked from the app, and then they end up with no work, and no income at all. Some have been blocked for taking ‘too much time’ to deliver the food, for being ‘too slow’, without even being told how long is ‘too long’.
They should be covered by the OHS/WHS laws – which put duties on the employer (or ‘PCBU’ – person conducting a business or undertaking) to provide workers (irrespective of whether they are directly employed or not) with equipment and systems of work which are safe and without risks to health.
“This system of employment has been around for years, but nothing has changed. In effect, these workers have no rights or
protections at all.”
The workers should also be entitled to workers’ compensation if they are injured – or killed. And yet none of the families of the workers killed are entitled to compensation. And to a minimum wage and other conditions. This system of employment has been around for years, but nothing has changed. In effect, these workers have no rights or protections at all.
In what the Transport Workers Union expects will be a landmark case on gig workers’ rights, the union is underwriting a compensation claim against Uber on behalf of the widow and child of Fredy Dede, one of the riders killed in Sydney in September.
Santone Lawyers, acting for the union, have told his Indonesian-based widow that under the death benefits provisions of NSW’s Workers Compensation Act 1987 (see here and here) she is entitled to claim a lump-sum of $834,200, weekly $150 payments for their four-year-old son and funeral expenses. The claim will initially be filed against Uber and NSW workers compensation insurer iCare; if rejected it will be pursued as a test case at the Workers Compensation Commission. Because at the moment the only way for the families to get any justice is by taking the companies to court.
In another case, the TWU supported and assisted the wife of Xiaojun Chen to come to Australia to attend her husband’s funeral, and to take his ashes back to China. The union helped her and her brother in law get an exemption to enter the country. Hungry Panda funded their travel and the funeral.
How can this totally unacceptable situation be fixed?
The NSW Government has set up a taskforce to investigate the deaths of the food delivery riders; it will be led by SafeWork NSW and Transport for NSW and will examine whether any avoidable risks may have contributed to the deaths.
TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said riders want to see urgent change and noted the establishment of the government taskforce – seen by some as just delaying taking real action. “This is a very sad time for delivery riders and anyone who works in road transport,” he said.
“The likes of Uber have been allowed to get away with trampling on workers’ rights and risking their lives. Denying workers minimum rates, forcing them to race around to make enough to pay bills and threatening them with sacking if they are even a few minutes late is endangering workers. Workers urgently need minimum pay, training, proper protective gear and insurance,” Kaine said.
“It has taken four rider deaths in Sydney for the NSW Government to set up a taskforce. The State Government needs to get on with this taskforce and ensure workers are central to it. The Federal Government also needs to acknowledge its role. It’s not good enough that states are in a piecemeal way trying to address the problem these billion-dollar global tech giants have created. We need the Federal Government to act and regulate,” he said.
In the UK the courts have come down with a decision is that it is an artificial characterisation of the relationship; companies are clearly engaging drivers to deliver to their customer base, the ‘other side’ of the equation.
Even in NSW in some circumstances, contractors across a sector, such as taxi drivers, get basic rights such as rates of pay, and so on, so this could apply in the food delivery sector here too.
Government, the state governments to an extent, the Federal Government and the Federal Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, have the powers to regulate the gig economy and extend protections and support to these workers – if they want to. Unions, the VTHC Young Workers’ Centre, and others, have been organising delivery riders, and campaigning for change. We must and will continue to do so until we see change.
There must be improvements in safety and protections for these workers. Every worker has the right to go to work and then come home again; to live and not die at work.