Workers in the 'gig economy' might be delivering your pizza, programming the app that allows the transaction, or own the platform and 15% of each transaction. Like the internet itself, the gig economy is proof that equality of opportunity has no relationship to equity or equality of outcome. 

It is easier than ever to own one’s own business – Jeff Bezos does, he owns Amazon. Valued at $156 billion he’s the world’s richest. The median salary of an Amazon employee is $AUS 39000. The bike riders that deliver food get paid as little as $6.70 per hour (Transport workers Union Snapshot). In many ways the gig economy represents uber-casualisation and income polarisation of the workforce.

For many, the flexibility afforded by privately contracting with employers allows them the lifestyles and variety that they desire. The freelance consultant or app developer can make their $1000 a day and have their snowboarding season too. At the lower end of the income spectrum the number of ‘contingent’ (gig) employees has overtaken those in traditional jobs. In other words if you are poor, you are  increasingly likely to have a job with no security – no permanency, no sick or holiday pay, and if a private contractor, no super payments either.

The McKinsey Global Institute study groups contingent workers into four categories:

  • Free agents — These freelancers actively choose gig economy work as their career or professional framework.
  • Casual earners — These are professionals who also choose to freelance to augment their primary income. 
  • Reluctants — These are like full-time free agents, but not by choice. Reluctants were either laid off or are hindered in some way from getting traditional employment. They derive their primary income from the gig economy.
  • Financially strapped — These are similar to casual earners but more out of necessity than choice. They freelance because they need to augment their primary income. 

It is the latter two categories that should be of most concern to the community sector. Not only could they represent a significant load to services in terms of mitigating of poverty, but also in the need for advocacy. Put bluntly, they don't get the usual entitlements associated with employment. This is usually because they are employed as contractors rather than employees. If they work for a variety of companies this is legal, but if they work for only one employer and wear the employer's uniforms it is arguable that they are an employee. So the tricky area lies where employees don't receive the entitlements they probably should. 

Because they are considered as self-employed, contractors bear a lot of the risks and costs that an employer usually would: insurances, buying and maintaining equipment (e.g. bikes), and being liable for the cost of rectifying any defect in their work. But should this be the case? Not acccording to the NSW Fair Work Commission, who say they will pursue businesses which attempt to avoid employment obligations by incorrectly engaging its workers as independent contractors.

This is exactly happened with food delivery service Foodora. In August 2018 The NSW Ombudsman challenged the amount of control Foodora had over the workers’ activities. This included the requirement that the workers wear Foodora-branded clothing and food storage boxes; that Foodora unilaterally decided the rates of pay for its workers; and the fact the workers only work for Foodora rather than publicly advertising their own personal delivery service. The result:

foodle

Foodora promptly left Australia. So if the state can't advocate collectively for employees without having them spit the dummy, how should not-for-profits engage with this issue of fairness? 
We will consider that question rhetorical for now. The low-end delivery type platforms are offered on a take or leave it basis - much like clicking "I Agree" when updating your phone software. Let's face it, when we have a great enough need, we usually just agree.Perhaps the best approaches in the meantime are along the lines of:

  • Strengthening legislation that protects gig workers - both NSW and Federal Labor have said they would bring in regulations to tidy up the employee/contractor dispute and set minimum rates of pay and provide protections against unfair dismissal to gig workers. And Victoria’s IR minister, Natalie Hutchins, has said the Owner Drivers and Forestry Contractors Act is going to be amended to regulate pay and conditions for owner drivers.
  • Work to increase membership of relevant unions - see the Transport Worker's Union On Demand campaign here.
  • Pressure companies to set fair minimum rates for workers and provide basic entitlements. Airtasker's conscience was pricked enough to provide insurance liability to third parties for personal injury or property damage whilst performing covered activities during a task on Airtasker - though not to the actual workers, they still need to fund their own worker's compensation scheme. 

As things stand, this shift in commerce has provided consumers with greater choices, provided flexibility and opportunities for many workers and made a few people super-rich. For the lower-paid however, it seems to be driving wages and conditions further downward, with the regulatory system scrambling to develop the mechanisms to control it.

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