Gig economy and ‘Uberisation’ overhaul as Albanese government preps laws to change employment

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Minimum wages, job security and better conditions could be coming for millions of Australian workers in the so-called “gig economy”.

The federal government is consulting on new laws to boost work security for millions of Australian workers, while new platforms offering better conditions, and a labour shortage, are making it harder for apps to attract people to do the work.

“We basically just let it rip,” says Giuseppe Carabetta, associate professor of employment law with the UTS Business School, about 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 food delivery and private transport services like Uber and DiDi, but it left workers stuck in a legal mire: treated as independent contractors while being highly dependent on particular apps.

“Gig workers kind of sit somewhere in the middle, because they do have the independence that traditional contractors have. And a lot of them like that independence, that freedom,” Dr Carabetta says.

“But on the other hand, they move, quack and swim like ducks. So they look like employees because, in reality, they can be subject to serious control.”

Flexible care

The growth of gig work has challenged traditional employment.

When Nicola Harrod needed the assistance of a disability support worker, she used an app to find Gwenyth Todd.

“It’s what you need to survive,” she says.

“It’s your basic living things that everyone has to do.

“Everyone needs to eat, everyone needs to have a shower. Everyone needs to go to medical appointments to keep us alive.

“So yeah, it’s crucial to just surviving and being alive. As well as obviously having a life.”

The work can be intimate and personal, so it’s important for Nicola to have a worker she’s comfortable with.

“I’m not ordering something from McDonald’s over Uber. It’s different.”

Gwenyth enjoys the empowerment she brings to her clients, and how it works with her life as well.

“I have about nine or 10 clients right now. I’m close to all of them, and they’re all very flexible,” she explains.

“It is a very special relationship. You’re coming into somebody’s home, you’re stepping into their life.

“There’s nothing clinical about it. If you don’t get along, it’s not going to work.”

They connected through app Hireup, and the way Gwenyth is employed points to where the gig economy could be heading.

New model

When Hireup launched in 2015, Jordan O’Reilly and his co-founder and sister Laura O’Reilly were urged to treat workers as independent contractors.

They didn’t.

“The problem with the gig economy across industries is that it is reducing and lowering the entitlements and the rights and the protections of workers,” Jordan O’Reilly says. “And in our space, we see that a lot.”

Instead, workers like Gwenyth are employed under standard industry awards, with a floor of wage levels, superannuation and insurance cover.

“We wanted to create a platform that would not only give people flexibility and autonomy and choice and control, but we also wanted to treat workers well, and ensure that if, as the company grew, we could protect the rights and entitlements that disability support workers have enjoyed in the past and should enjoy in the future,” Mr O’Reilley says, proud of the way the company is set up.

“We think it’s a great model for the future. We think it represents the best of the technology with the best of labour conditions that workers are entitled to.”

But Hireup competes with companies that don’t meet those employment responsibilities, and it’s getting harder.

“Without changes, without a real hard look at the growth of the gig economy across all sectors, I think we’re going to lose something that we really treasure here in Australia, which is the rights and entitlements and protections for workers,” Mr O’Reilly argues.

Change is coming

Former Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James held an inquiry into the gig economy for the Victorian government that questioned the lack of transparency about entitlements for workers, the “take it or leave it contracts” offered and noted how all the power or “leverage” was with the platforms.

“There is a lot of variation, a huge diversity of people who are accessing work in this way, from professional people, sales, marketing, skilled tradespeople, all the way through to your food and food delivery and rideshare drivers as well as caring workers,” she told NewsBreakfast when she released the report in July 2020.

“We do have to ask the question: for these low-leverage, vulnerable people, migrant workers, visa holders, young workers in what is a pretty hostile labour market at the moment, are we comfortable with that lack of any standard or protection?”

Now Ms James has a new gig, as secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

Her promotion doesn’t mean every recommendation in her report will become law, but it informs the direction things are heading.

In legislation set for next year, the government will try to cement election promises including creating a new category of “employee-like workers” and giving the industrial umpire, the Fair Work Commission, the power to set minimum standards.

Those changes, together, would boost security and conditions for gig workers and force changes to the model of global giants like Uber.

Tinkering with work

Looking across the rocky landscape of changes to industrial relations — something governments have struggled with — Giuseppe Carabetta calls it a starting point.

“And we’ve got [Workplace Relations Minister] Tony Burke consistently saying that otherwise, if not already, it will be a race to the bottom,” he says.

The low unemployment rate is another element that may force change to the gig models.

With workers harder to find — and more job vacancies than unemployed people — the proportion of workers shifting jobs has reached a decade-high.

With a tight labour market and sluggish wage growth, Dr Carabetta sees a government ready to tackle potential criticism as it reshapes the concept of “work”.

“I firmly believe that now is the time. And I think that the government itself has said it’s not going to negotiate on this very idea of ‘minimum conditions’, without over-regulating the sector.”

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By business reporter Daniel Ziffer (Original ABC Article)