Exploited gig workers need industry reform claims new Flinders University study

An Adelaide-based partner was sacked by Uber Eats in 2019 for allegedly arriving 10 minutes late for a delivery, after having worked 96 hours in one week.
Written by Julian Bingley, Contributor on

Gig workers are exploited through promises of a flexible algorithm according to a new study published by Flinders University, contending that an out-of-court settled case involving an Uber Eats driver epitomised the problems still facing Australia's digital platform economy.

An absence of definitions over employment in gig economy work and the vulnerabilities of temporary migrants and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are the key issues facing the industry according to the study, Worker exploitation in the Australian gig economy: emerging mechanisms of social control.

An example of these issues came in the form of Adelaide-based Amita Gupta, who was sacked by Uber Eats in 2019 for allegedly arriving 10 minutes late for a delivery -- after having worked 96 hours in one week -- demonstrating the ways gig companies in Australia can strong-arm workers without consequence, according to the study.

The out-of-court settlement hinged on two key mechanisms of "algorithm control" that removed responsibility from the company, and a narrative of worker autonomy and flexibility, according to Flinders University associate professor in criminal justice and human rights Marinella Marmo.

Read: Uber admits to misleading Australian users about ride cancellation fees

"We argue that the gig companies use the algorithm and the 'flexibility and autonomy' arguments to take away responsibility from themselves, while spinning the model as a positive for the gig worker (by using the 'they can choose how much / how often they want to engage' argument)," said Marmo.

The study also claimed that limited union power, inadequate legal reforms, and a lack of other safeguards for the new economy industry continue to disadvantage gig workers and strengthen the power of businesses operating in such a "precarious" casual labour market.

"Firstly, we are only beginning to grasp how big data is being assembled and used by companies, and most often algorithms are depicted as if they deliver neutrality, when they are not. Secondly, the narrative of flexibility and autonomy is normalised as positive, yet it can be another way gig companies may evade their responsibility for their workers," Marmo added.

"The two mechanisms of control reflect a powerful narrative that is difficult to disrupt, because the gig economy has been appropriated, normalised, and imposed as socially productive -- that is, as serving the greater good," claimed Flinders University PhD candidate Elvio Sinopoli.

Meanwhile, in a move that circumvents these issues, Uber Eats announced that the company is turning to autonomous vehicles in a major market. Along with AV partner Motional, the third-party delivery platform will be launching a new autonomous delivery experience in the US.

Deliveries will be conducted in Motional's IONIQ 5 vehicles, which are capable of operating autonomously. Participating restaurants bring packaged orders to the curb and place them inside a locking compartment. Once the car arrives at its destination the customer is notified and retrieves the order from the car. 

Related Coverage

Editorial standards