Michael Kaine, Opinion

Creating sustainability in the gig economy

Road grants

There’s no time to waste in creating safer, fairer jobs for transport workers. After transport reform passed the Australian Parliament in February, the industry has been hard at work with how we can use the new laws to start making things better – as soon as possible.

Laws come into effect in August, and of course, change will take time. But there are some areas where the industry has been crying out for change.

The first is fair payment terms.

If you’re part of this industry, whether you’re an owner-driver, employee driver or operator, you know first-hand what unfair payment terms can mean for a business. They transfer all the financial risk onto those with the most to lose, from the ones who gain the most from the labour – the clients at the top of the supply chain.

They’re also far too common in the industry. How are you supposed to run a business if you’re on razor-thin margins as it is, and then have to wait 120 days to be paid?

In a survey of over 1000 road transport workers the Transport Workers Union (TWU) conducted in 2021, over half had experienced wage theft.

When Scott’s Refrigerated Logistics collapsed, after being an industry leader, administrators said unsustainable contracts were a key reason for its demise. The company was having to use debt funders just to pay its people.

The trucks never stopped running at Scott’s, but if the contract settings aren’t fair in the first place, disaster can be just around the corner, no matter the size of your business.

Fairer payment terms are a rational and reasonable standard to set immediately, and one we’ll be pursuing from day one of the laws taking effect.

Another area is the gig economy.

Technology has come a long way since a century and a half ago, when the TWU’s first members were trolley and draymen – the transport workers who helped build our nation. They were owner-drivers, paid piece-rates.

When the trollies were replaced by trucks, the owner-driver model continued. Thousands upon thousands of truck drivers today operate as small business owner-drivers.

Then the gig economy arrived on our shores – new-fangled technology that promised flexibility but delivered working conditions from the 1800s.

We’re all now familiar with the lethal conditions faced by riders, often migrant students, dodging trucks to deliver a hamburger in the rain, while the algorithm on their phone screams at them to go faster, or face being kicked off an app.

Driver pressure

Recently we were met with another stark reminder of the exploitative nature of the gig economy.

Zhuoying Wang is a food delivery rider for Hungry Panda. She organised protests when the company imposed pay cuts and dangerous bonus schemes that pressured drivers to deliver food in impossible time frames.

Following the protests, Zhuoying suddenly stopped getting orders on the app. She logged on for over 100 hours and only made $84. The company effectively punished her for speaking out about pay and safety by sacking her by stealth, attempting to silence her.

It was Zhuoying’s only source of income, and she’s faced immense financial difficulty since, but has continued standing up for fairness.

If the legislation that just passed through Parliament didn’t capture gig workers, in five years’ time we’d see app-based trucking, with algorithms telling drivers they were going too slow, and companies not using a gig model finding themselves unable to compete.

Gig-style models for trucking already exist in the US through behemoths like Amazon – and they don’t spell good news. Amazon contracts unsafe trucking operators at double the rate of other clients.

If this were to be a reality in Australia, margins wouldn’t just be razor-thin, drivers and operators would be losing money having trucks on the roads. Not just that, drivers may not even make it home.

Meanwhile, you’ve got billionaires like Jeff Bezos – Amazon’s former CEO – thanking workers because they’d funded his joyride to space.

In the last month, Amazon overtook eBay as Australia’s leading marketplace.

Without these laws, it’s certain that we’d be going down the low road the US is currently on. That’s because of how adept these companies have become at side-stepping laws.

Companies like Amazon and Hungry Panda get around our laws by shifting the goalposts and tweaking contracts to avoid any responsibility.

The vehicles and methods of delivery may differ, but the same dynamic underpins both. It’s unregulated, dehumanising work. It’s a cannibalistic cycle of competition, where drivers, riders or operators are pushed beyond extremes, risking their lives to meet the unrealistic demands.

The explosion of the gig economy around the world has meant governments and courts are behind the eight-ball – laws just haven’t been able to keep up with the way gig companies shift definitions of work.

The classification of a food delivery rider or rideshare driver as an “employee” or a “worker” is not going to guarantee that they have rights. Hungry Panda would just change its riders’ contracts again to fit them back into the contractor definition.

This legislation will ensure that it won’t matter what label or legal definition you’re working under, you will still have rights.

The power of having an industry that’s so united is that the outliers lose their control. The legislation that’s just passed will mean the gig economy won’t be able to drag the rest of the industry down with it. Everyone will be brought up together, protecting both drivers and transport operators from the cycle of cannibalistic competition.

So that must also be a priority for when laws take effect, dealing with the exploitative and dangerous gig economy by setting minimum standards there. It’s not just so that workers like Zhuoying finally have some justice and dignity at work, it’s so the whole transport industry doesn’t become controlled by algorithms telling you to go faster.

There’s a long list of ways the transport industry needs to change to make it better for drivers and operators. The industry unity that’s been so critical to achieving reform must now continue to get decent standards in place as quickly as possible.

There are common-sense applications we can make as soon as laws take effect. With day one just a few months away, it’s time to start making road transport safer, fairer and more sustainable.

Michael Kaine is the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union of Australia. Contact Michael at: NSW Transport Workers Union, Transport House, 188-390 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW 2000. twu@twu.com.au

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