'Not acceptable' says Senate committee of Australia's gig economy working conditions

Neither health and safety protections nor the wages currently provided to Australia's gig economy workers impressed the Senate Select Committee on Job Security.

A Senate committee that is leading an inquiry into Australia's gig economy has raised concerns that riders and drivers for companies such as Deliveroo, Uber and Amazon are being underpaid and insufficient health and safety protections are being provided to them.

"The committee feels strongly that the current arrangements, conditions, and pay rates for gig workers are not acceptable and do not provide them with sufficient income and other protections to provide for themselves and their families," the Select Committee on Job Security outlined in its first interim report [PDF] that examines the current state on-demand platform work in Australia.

"The committee considers that it is essential for gig workers -- and all workers for that matter -- to be paid at a rate that rightly recognises the value of the work that they do, that they are provided with other conditions that ensure they do not have to work when they are sick, they are safe at work and their families are not left destitute when they are injured or killed, that they are paid superannuation to underpin a financially stable future, and that they can access other labour protections providing dispute resolution and mechanisms for addressing discrimination and harassment."

The report detailed in addition to being exposed to abuse, assaults, discrimination, and sexual harassment, gig workers are being put at risk of serious injury or death due to "unrealistic time and performance pressures, combined with high-risk work environments, and lack of training and appropriate protective equipment".

"The committee considers that a safe work environment is a fundamental right for all workers, including for gig workers. The current arrangements for gig workers clearly do not offer the health and safety protections that Australian society expects -- as seen in other employment arrangements -- nor requirements and ongoing supports that are necessary to keep gig workers as safe as possible at work and to look after them and their families if they are injured or killed," the report said.

Chaired by Senator Tony Sheldon, the committee received 122 submissions, including from the major gig economy platform companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Ola, and Amazon, which each submitted that their platforms are designed to provide individuals with supplementary earning opportunities and flexibility.

However, the committee found gig economy workers are not paid fairly, pointing out that the Transport Workers' Union (TWU) submission identified rideshare workers earn on average, AU$12.85 per hour, making it "well below" the national minimum wage of AU$24.80 for casual workers. It noted that Uber, on the contrary, submitted its Sydney-based drivers, for instance, were receiving on average AU$21 per hour after expenses.

At the same time, the committee found that "a significant number" of platform workers did not know how much they earned per hour.

Other concerns that the committee raised in the report included that gig economy workers who worked most often and were dependent on gig work were "disproportionately and negatively affecting vulnerable groups", including women, young people, older workers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people living with a disability, migrants, students, low-income earners, and the formerly unemployed.

In raising these issues, the committee made a total of 15 recommendations. Among them included for the Australian government to expand the definitions of employment and employee in the Fair Work Act 2009 to "capture new and revolving forms of work", as well as expand the power of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) under the Act so it could extend the same rights and protections for those who may fall outside of the definition of employment, as well as make orders for minimum standards and conditions for all forms of work.

The committee also wants the federal government to establish an "accessible low-cost" national tribunal to advise on, oversee, and make rulings relating to employment relationships, while also investigate for a federal regulation to be empowered to request data from platforms that employ and contract workers, including pay rates, hours worked, and other relevant information needed to monitor that safety, competition, and labours rights are being appropriately provided to contractors.

Additionally, the federal government has been recommended to work with state and territory governments on developing a national scheme that extends and is in line with existing schemes in relation to portable long service leave, sick leave, minimum standards of pay, safety and insurance, workers' compensation, and basic protections for workers.

The need for both the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Safe Work Australia to enhance their data collection process so there is greater clarity about the number of workers in the gig economy, the injuries and fatalities as a result of working in the sector, and other demographic characteristics was also recommended in the report.

The Senate Select Committee is due to table its final report on 30 November 2021.

In February, federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese vowed that the Labor party would legislate job security, pay, and entitlements for gig economy workers as part of its policy pitch that the party would take to the next election.

"It's time for a national approach. That's why a Labor government that I lead will consult with state and territory governments, unions, and industry, to develop, where it is practical, portable entitlements for annual leave, sick leave, and long service leave for Australians in insecure work," he said.

Labor's plan to take a national approach to protecting gig economy workers answers calls that were made by the Victorian government back in July when it handed down 20 recommendations as part of the state government's inquiry into the on-demand workforce.

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