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Issue #1888      October 2, 2019

A gig is not a job – Part 1

Companies such as Uber, Airtasker, Deliveroo, and Airbnb have become household names with millions of Australians using them for the purchase of goods and services. They are companies that are engaged in what is commonly referred to as the gig economy. But how many people know how these companies operate, what happens behind the scenes, how they treat their workers, beyond the fact that they claim they are only online platforms? Anna Pha from the Guardian interviewed Thomas Costa, assistant secretary of Unions NSW, who is at the forefront of the defence of workers in the gig economy.

Photo: Unions NSW

Anna Pha: Where did all of this start?

Thomas Costa: We consciously decided to look at the gig economy. We started looking at it about four years ago. We started to notice there were more and more businesses, particularly online, that were engaging people online, with short-term contracts on on-demand type contracts.

One particular company we noticed, which is now the biggest gig economy company in Australia, is Airtasker. They were employing people to do odd jobs. So you could go online and say you need a cleaner and you would find someone saying “I am willing to be your cleaner” and they start a bidding process – bidding down.

So they might say “I am willing to do your job for $15 an hour.” Another might say they will do it for $10, then another for $9. So they keep bidding until an amount you could agree on, so multiple workers could bid for the same job.

It raised a number of questions for us, and a number of concerns. That’s when we thought that we actually need to get into this space because if this starts to become more common, particularly with the growth of the internet, it is going to be a real problem for minimum standards for workers.

AP: Where did the name gig come from?

TC: This was around the time when Airbnb had become popular, Uber was starting out and there were a lot of people referring to it as the “sharing economy” which has these connotations of being fair, warm and fuzzy.

So we can’t call it the sharing economy, this isn’t sharing. This is something quite exploitative. So we looked around and there had been this term used a couple of times in some of the academic literature, calling it the “gig economy.” That was a reference to someone performing a gig. Musicians and actors often do gigs.

They described it as a gig economy as you basically get paid for a gig. There’s no regulation for it. You do one job and get paid for it and if you do another job tomorrow you get paid for it. And if you don’t get one the next day you don’t get paid. That’s why we chose the term gig economy.

Then we went out and did this report on Airtasker. That was the first time, certainly in Australia, and probably internationally, to a large extent that anyone had started to talk about this new phenomenon of online businesses trying to engage workers directly, completely outside of the industrial relations systems of the countries they operate in.

AP: When you say “we” who are you referring to?

TC: I’m talking about Unions NSW where I work. I was elected as assistant secretary four years ago. The secretary was also newly appointed at the time. My background is the railway union, the RTBU. I was there for about six years as an industrial officer in the national office.

AP: Could you give a few examples of these companies, and do they all operate in the same way?

TC: No, they operate very differently but what they all have in common is they claim they are not employers. They all say they are not employers, that they are just online platforms.

We noticed that Airtasker gave some indication of the rate, that they would advertise on their site that the average rate for a cleaner is $15 per hour. They are even advertising below the minimum wage, which is why we did the report to say these companies are actively involved in manipulating the market.

Race to the bottom

They were using it to drive wages down, pitting worker against worker in a sort of race to the bottom, and using their scale to undercut established employers who pay legal wages.

Airtasker is one of the bigger gig companies in Australia and an Australian company. That was sort of why we chose to target them as the first real campaign in this space.

The way we wanted to do this was by creating awareness in the community that this is an issue. So we looked into the gig economy but predominantly focused on Airtasker as the vehicle to do that. We drafted a report in-house and we called that Innovation or Exploitation?

The report particularly focused on how it was a model that led to very exploitative conditions of workers and in some cases actually dangerous exploitation.

There were jobs advertising electrical work, for example, in people’s homes that had no requirements for licencing or any of the other OH&S requirements that you would expect in that industry. Airtasker at the time did not see itself as having a role in OH&S because it described itself as basically a “Trading Post,” but operating online, which it definitely isn’t.

So after we released that report we got a lot of media attention. We followed it with a lot of social media as part of our campaign. That really leveraged the fact that these gig economy companies are quite brand sensitive. They don’t have particularly complex websites or platforms, so they are vulnerable to another company coming in and stealing their market share. So by doing that we actually forced Airtasker to come in and to talk to us and talk about how they could reform their business.

So that was probably one of the more positive gig campaigns that we have done because we sat down with them very quickly and explained where we thought there were some problems with what they were doing.

They did not give us everything, but to their credit they were willing to do a deal. We reached an agreement which meant they would no longer advertise these below award wages, that they would allow us to help them improve their occupational health and safety.

So now they require licencing, they check for those things, they badge different people using their sites as to whether they have an official licence or not. We produced a lot of material on OH&S for them to put on their website to help create awareness of what occupational health and safety standards that you need.

We also started a process of trying to develop a dispute settlement process that would be overseen by the Commission.

It’s quite interesting. Airtasker came to us after about six months of our agreement being in place and they said that we had actually made them money because they take 15 per cent of every job. Because people are being paid correct or above award wages they are getting more of a clip. It was a little bit ironic. We ran a campaign against them but we kind of helped them out too!

That was a sort of positive outcome but we learnt a lot about the gig economy going through that process and how a number of players that come on the market are mostly tech people. They’re not traditional employers, they understand the internet, they understand the technology. They don’t really understand labour relations, they don’t understand OH&S, and they don’t generally want to get into that space.

They want to stay away from it as much as possible, which has been part of the cause of much of these problems.

Ripped off

Another thing we learnt is that Australians do not like to know that they are ripping someone off. People were using Airtasker when it was underpaying and not paying award rates and weren’t particularly fussed about it. But as soon as we went out to the media and on online on social media and said this is below award rates, that if you are employing someone through Airtasker, you are doing the wrong thing, then we started to see their business drop off.

Australians do not like to know someone is being underpaid, which also gives us a lot of leverage in these types of campaigns against these companies.

So that was the Airtasker campaign.

AP: Are you able to give us another example of the gig economy?

TC: More recently we’re involved in a campaign with the Transport Workers Union [TWU] called The Rights for Riders which is about improving the rights of those workers you see out on the streets riding bicycles or scooters delivering food for restaurants – Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

Rights for Riders

We started that at the beginning of last year, getting out and talking to riders. We hung around on street corners to try and catch them. We found they were being severely underpaid. In some cases their average pay was about ten to fifteen dollars an hour.

AP: Were they happy to talk to you?

TC: Very. Initially there was some apprehension but we went about and rode with them. We logged on, signed up with these companies, we started delivering food. We built relationships with them and very quickly the word got round that the unions were out here talking to them.

They wanted to talk. Some of the conditions were so terrible that they were really upset. These companies, for example, used to pay much higher rates – they used to pay an hourly rate. They removed the hourly rate and then paid a delivery fee. They would extend periodically the amount of kilometres for a ride.

So if you can imagine you are paid $9 per delivery and your average distance for delivery is 5 km and they increase that to 7 km and you are still only getting $9 a delivery, you’re losing pay. Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and Foodora would do this periodically to test how far the workers would go before they would just give up. You could see that the workers were getting really frustrated about this.

And they had been doing their own organising as well. They had set up a series of WhatsApp groups, lots of online groups, where they were talking about what was going on. So it was very easy for us to then get involved in those groups, and communicate with them and organise them.

So there was a large campaign. At different stages, where we felt some of the attempts of these companies to really stretch the limits of what is reasonable, we would help these riders organise wildcat strikes.

They would immediately wind back whatever the push had been, whether it was to extend their distances or lower the pay rates.

Flexibility myth

Lots of people talk about flexibility in the gig economy but something we learnt from these riders is that there is very little flexibility. Although they log on the App and ride, they are considered independent contractors and so they don’t have to ride at any given time. If they don’t ride the shifts that these companies want them to ride, then they don’t get the good shifts the following week.

They have an algorithm that rates you. Depending on your speed, depending on which shifts you ride, how available you are, you get preference then for the better shifts the next week. So you can imagine that if you are being paid $10 a delivery you are not really going to want to ride on a Monday night. You’d want to do the busy nights on Fridays and Saturdays.

AP: So you could be on a whole shift on a Monday night and only get a couple of gigs?

TC: That’s right. When these companies first came into the market a few years ago, some of the riders who have been around since it first started said it was actually a good job. You would get paid, I can’t remember exactly, but about $20 an hour plus a $10 for a delivery fee. So on a good night you might be making $30 or more per hour riding around and they were quite happy with that. But then, periodically these rates would be reduced and it got to the point where they are only paid per delivery.

Next week: Part 2 of the gig economy – visa workers, and the expansion of the gig economy into new, higher-skilled fields of work.

Next article – West Papua – Call on UN to step in and stop bloodshed

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