This lawyer’s insight into the plight of gig economy workers

By Indira Laisram
Kavita Maharaj, Principal Lawyer, Slater and Gordon

The gig economy, while big, seems pretty precarious for workers, if one was to go by reports. The Slater & Gordon research, conducted by Kantar Australia early this year, featuring responses from 250 ride share and food delivery workers around Australia, show some concerning findings.

It says more than half (52 per cent) of food delivery and ride share workers were not provided with safety training or thorough safety advice before they started working with gig economy platforms.

According to Slater & Gordon Workers Compensation and Motor Vehicle Accident lawyer Kavita Maharaj, the overall lack of training and support provided by these global companies to their workers was concerning.

Maharaj, an experienced litigation lawyer, talks to The Indian Sun, about the issues surrounding workers of the gig economy, many of whom are new migrants and students.

▶︎ Are gig economy workers employees without the benefits of employees?

Gig economy workers are the Uber drivers and food delivery ride workers. Basically, what they do is download an app on the phone and find a way to earn money. Some of them are migrant workers who are sometimes here on temporary visas as well, and it becomes quite easy for them to download these apps, get jobs quickly because it might be hard for them to find full time work. These delivery and ride share workers are independent contractors. They are not employees, so they don’t get the minimum wage, superannuation, paid sick leave, or, more importantly, access to workers’ compensation, which is a problem if you get injured while working because you could end up in financial distress and struggle just to get by day to day.

Unfortunately, five food delivery workers have died on New South Wales (NSW) and Victorian roads last year.

▶︎ So, there is no clear-cut law on protecting these workers?

There have been some measures taken but there are state and federal legislation loopholes making it quite easy for these workers to be exploited. We have been calling for these workers to be called employees at the national level in Australia so that they have access to the same rights and entitlements as employees.

Menulog recently reclassified their workers to provide them with minimum wage and super contribution, which is a step in the right direction.

The Victorian government have announced they intend to provide gig economy workers with more benefits same as employees. Federal Labor Opposition have said they will regulate the gig economy by establishing an independent body to deliver a set minimum pay and conditions, if they are elected.

And Uber has recently introduced some safety equipment like lights, bells, safety vests for Uber Eats drivers, not helmets though, just the technology to check if they are wearing their helmets.

So there are some safety regulations that are coming in slowly but that’s not enough. Handing over a road safety guidebook to new employees, as we know one UK-based company had been doing in Australia, instead of providing sufficient training for workers, does not amount to providing specialist training to people riding bicycles, motorbikes or vehicles around large cities all day.

For workers who have not been in Australia long and may not be familiar with the road rules, this is not good enough. Many of these companies who provide services through apps do not pay workers’ compensation insurance premiums to the state government so their employees may not covered by workers’ compensation in the event of an accident causing them injuries.

▶︎ What is the healthy hourly rate for a gig economy worker?

They are not paid hourly rates. So, in the UK recently, the courts forced Uber should pay the ride share workers a minimum wage but only while they are driving or transporting the customer. But in Australia, at the moment, there is no minimum wage, no super, no sick leave and no annual leave.

Group shot of Slater and Gordon, QLD staff
▶︎ And still Australia is big on the gig economy given that it is a substantial stream of income for a lot of people and there is flexibility?

Yes there is flexibility and big companies are selling it on the basis that you can be your own boss. But courts here and overseas have found that the riders and the drivers are not as independent as they are told they are. You have to work when there is demand, during peak hours, you have to spend hours waiting for work. Workers have very little bargaining power regarding wages, hours and conditions. Also if you look at the costs involved in running your car, the petrol and the time loss, and the lack of safety net if something happen… It is convenient to have your food delivered at your doorstep, but at what costs of the workers? That’s something we have to think about as well.

▶︎ In the near future, will we see some protective measures coming up?

Yes there are some steps already put in place. New South Wales have put in some safety precautions, they have made it compulsory for companies to provide safety training. The Victorian Government has signalled it will move to re-classify food delivery riders and other gig economy workers from independent contractors to employees, and to work with the Federal Government on the issue. Queensland is also looking at reports filed with its health and safety organisations so. Looking at what is being done overseas, I think we will be forced to look into the safety issues and legal right entitlements of these workers. These are some things that are on everybody’s radar at the moment.

▶︎ Any last thoughts?

It is a very important topic at the moment. New South Wales has put in road rules and they have given these Uber drivers unique ID to make sure that they are following the road rules. Majority of the riders say these measures are too tough and will make their work more dangerous because, at the end of the day, food delivery riders face enormous pressure to deliver as quickly as possible. If they don’t do it, sometimes they lose their jobs.

I believe the responsibility should be with the employers, the companies who are making so much profit out of these workers to make sure that they are trained, safe and protected like all the other employees are. Many of the major apps had dodged their responsibilities for too long.

I would suggest workers to check what their legal entitlements are. Even though you might not be covered by the workers compensation scheme, there could be other avenues or other ways that you could get some sort of assistance.

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