A curious thing happens when a company purports to be a technology company rather than a transport or logistics company.
When you get into an Uber, you might assume you are paying for the service of being driven to your destination. Not so. According to Uber, the service you’re purchasing is just the app that connected you with the driver. From the moment you step into the car, you and your driver are in a relationship independent of the Uber platform (despite that platform tracking your movement, taking your payment, and rating both the driver’s behaviour and your own).
So much of our technological society is built on labour that is invisible, and that in many cases, isn’t even recognised as labour by companies themselves. Lift the veil, and behind the app and the algorithms are workers. There are Amazon workers racing through warehouses pumping out packages for delivery every 11 seconds, and workers who shop for you when you order groceries online.
This all comes from these tech companies simply not recognising their workforce. It’s no secret that Uber and its contemporaries do not class its drivers as employees, but rather as independent contractors. The app, the technology, is Uber’s service. Everyone else is free to use it as they see fit. That’s your business, not theirs.
But every now and then there are flashpoints in the slow crawl of change. The conditions in the gig economy are making headlines around the world.
Two Months of Horror for Gig Workers
In the space of two months between October and November last year, five delivery riders were killed at work. Four were in Sydney, one in Melbourne.
Xiaojun Chen, Dede Fredy, Chow Khai Shien, Bijoy Paul and Ik Wong were working for various app-based delivery companies (you know the ones) when they were killed in traffic. None of their families will qualify for compensation. None of the companies will be penalised for the loss of life or investigated for OHS breaches.
Lihong Wei, Xiaojun Chen’s widow, will be provided with some support this week in the form of funds raised by workers led by the Transport Workers’ Union. It will be the only money she receives following the death of her husband, as the company has not compensated her. Before he passed away, Xiaojun sent the majority of his earnings back to the remote village in China where his wife, two children and mother depended on him. Without this income, Ms Wei doesn't know how she will manage.
Following her husband’s death, she testified in front of a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the gig economy.
She said, through a translator and through tears, “It's very important for the riders to get more rights. The riders work very hard. They leave home early and come home late and sometimes even under extreme weather conditions, they still have to travel far to every corner of the city.”
The NSW and federal governments are yet to make any moves in this area to regulate the gig economy, seemingly (and unsurprisingly) unwilling to blaze a trail for safer working conditions and more secure employment.
In the meantime, the TWU and the Young Workers Centre are currently running a petition tell multinational companies like Deliveroo, Uber Eats & Foodora it's time to treat their riders with respect.
Precarity in the UK
In recent weeks, the problem has come to a head in the United Kingdom. The nation’s Supreme Court has ruled that people driving for these companies should simply be classified as “workers” - ignoring the contractor/employee dichotomy. Drivers and riders therefore become subject to minimum wage requirements, paid leave, paid breaks and protection from discrimination. The outcome is, as always seems to be the case in workplace relations, something of a win - but not perfect. Ideally they would simply be classed as employees of Uber or whoever, and be given the same rights and protections as employees of any other business. Instead, a third class which has rarely been defined and utilised in the UK is about to be put to the test.
Drivers and riders therefore become subject to minimum wage requirements, paid leave, paid breaks and protection from discrimination.
Observers describe it as eerily similar to the measures recently introduced in California. Known as Proposition 22, it was a ballot measure that was soundly supported by the electorate in November last year. The extra eerie part is that Uber and other similar platforms spent millions of dollars supporting the measures, which seem to be an encumbrance on their business model. This suggests that Uber views the UK ruling and the California ballot measure as an exploitable third option compared to what might have occurred. They’re essentially taking a small hit in order to avoid a more devastating blow.
The minimum wage requirement, for example, sounds positive. However, the time that a worker is considered to be “working” is not the entire time they are logged in to the app, but only the time they have a passenger or a delivery with them. Time between trips, looking for trips, or en route to collect people is not considered work time and is therefore not calculated as part of the work hours subject to minimum wage. It’s not nothing, but it falls short of the standards workers in other industries could expect.
The link between the demands of the job and the safety of workers is clear. Having to hustle through and between jobs at a pace that is fast enough to make enough per hour is not conducive to a safe working environment. Add on top of this the chaotic physical environment itself - the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities - it should make sense that choosing between your safety and your income is not something anyone should have to do.
Australian Gig Workers Driving Change
The Transport Workers Union is leading the charge for the rights of these riders and drivers in Australia. It’s a difficult workforce to organise for various reasons, but when things become increasingly dire, workers are already standing up and fighting back.
Hungry Panda has become something of a stronghold for the union. Six weeks of protests, meetings with bosses, meetings with politicians and two successful unfair dismissal cases has seen significant wins for these workers. They will now enjoy insurance in the event of injury or death, and a commitment to continued negotiations with the union and riders on other matters such as the rider rating system and safety. The company has dropped the pay structures they tried to introduce which would have significantly cut wages, and which were unequal across different locations.
They have elected their own health and safety representatives under the WHS Act, and are now looking at more ways that the Act could be used to achieve and enforce changes.
With such high-profile recent tragedies, health and safety is coming to the forefront of workers’ minds. In a recent TWU survey, 78% of delivery riders disclosed they feared serious injury or death in the course of their work. It would be hard to imagine any other industry where a statistic like that could exist at all, let alone be allowed to continue unregulated.
In the absence of regulation, however, workers are using the strength and the mechanisms afforded to them by collective action in order to address their concerns. Hungry Panda workers and Deliveroo workers have now elected their own health and safety representatives under the WHS Act, and are now looking at more ways that the Act could be used to achieve and enforce changes. (But we don’t want to give the game away, in case Uber has subscribed to Megaphone Journal…)
Deliveroo riders in Australia also took part in worldwide protests in the lead-up to the company's Initial Public Offering (IPO). The protests were intended to bring to light the company's mistreatment of workers for potential investors and hit the company's share price when it floated on the stock market. The strategy was a massive success: the IPO, which took place last Wednesday, was a train wreck.
As CNN reports: "The stock plunged when trading started on Wednesday, and the shares eventually closed 26% below their listing price, wiping almost £2 billion ($2.8 billion) off Deliveroo's initial market capitalization. The stock lost another 1.9% on Thursday."
It can be hard to assign cause-and-effect in situations like this, but many financial analysts point to recent developments with Uber and the growing conversation around the rights of gig economy workers when conducting a post-mortem on the Deliveroo crash. The business model, which was so bullish and headstrong in recent golden years in Silicon Valley, is increasingly being shown to be unsustainable and incompatible with basic labour standards.
Gig workers are not business people, they are not entrepreneurs. They are workers. They should be treated as such, and urgently - because while they attempt to duck and weave around employment laws around the world, and debate definitions and statutes, people are losing their lives
A curious thing happens when a company purports to be a technology company rather than a transport or logistics company. When you get into an Uber, you might assume you are paying for the service of being driven to your destination. Not so. According to Uber, the service you’re purchasing is just the app that connected you with the driver.