Interviews with ridesharing and food delivery workers have found their experience is more nuanced than both critics and advocates have made out.
One of the most significant labour market trends over the past decade has been the growth of what are referred to as ‘non-standard work arrangements’.
This covers people working as independent contractors, through labour hire firms, or as casual employees.
It’s a trend with many implications.
For many individuals this shift has fuelled concerns about security of employment and surety of income.
This was manifest recently when casual employees did not quality for JobKeeper.
A longer-term issue for many casual employees has been the difficulty they face qualifying for housing loans.
The trend has also raised recurring issues around the definition of independent contractors and casual employees.
This uncertainty has been highlighted by the widely debated WorkPac case, which found that a long-term casual employee was able to claim entitlements such as annual leave and sick leave on top of their casual loading.
This ruling is subject to appeal, with business groups concerned about how much it widens eligibility for those entitlements.
The trend toward people working as independent contractors has been fuelled by the rapid emergence of web-based platforms such as Uber and Airtasker.
Recent research on the use of digital work platforms revealed their significant penetration into the labour market.
Of the 14,000 people who responded to a national survey, 13.1 per cent had undertaken digital platform work at some time.
This included 7.1 per cent who had worked through a digital platform during the past 12 months.
The survey, led by Queensland University of Technology, found more than 100 different platforms were being used.
The most common was Airtasker, which was used by 34.8 per cent of platform workers.
The survey found that temporary residents, such as international students, were three times more likely to be a platform worker than Australian citizens.
While Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders are the most public manifestation, only 13.9 per cent of platform workers used their car or their bicycle for work.
The reality was that more than half of all platform workers (55.3 per cent) worked from their home.
Another surprising result was that nearly half (47.2 per cent) spent less than five hours per week doing this work.
This likely includes people using platforms such as Airtasker and Freelancer to pick up a small amount of extra work, typically in areas such as writing and translation, data entry, multimedia and software
In contrast, transport and food delivery workers spend more hours per week doing this work than other platform workers.
They are likely to be among the 19.2 per cent of platform workers who said they derived more than half their income from platform work.
Edith Cowan University business lecturer Tom Barratt and University of Western Australia lecturer Caleb Goods teamed up with some east coast colleagues to research ‘gig’ work: work that is paid on a ‘per task’ basis.
Dr Barratt said he was attracted to the research because this type of work was a new phenomenon.
They interviewed 60 ridesharing and food delivery workers and found the reality of their experiences was far more nuanced than others have made out.
A key finding was that gig workers arbitrated between the costs and benefits of their gig work.
“The workers had real and thought-out reasons for doing this type of work,” Dr Barratt said.
“They also had really diverse reasons and experiences.”
Many interviewees chose their gig work over other forms of low-paid work such as cleaning, hospitality and retail.
They talked about abusive bosses and underpayment as being much bigger issues in those sectors.
In comparison, gig work was seen as a more appealing work environment.
The gig work often involved long hours but it was also seen as more flexible, enjoyable, and sociable than the alternatives.
Gig workers spoke about having no boss and no set hours.
However, this sense of flexibility was diminished by the reality that these workers had to fit their day around certain hours when they were busy, such as dinner time.
The sense of control was also diminished by what the interviewees saw as unilateral changes to the terms and conditions of engagement.
The survey included some workers who felt marginalised and had few choices, often because of visa restrictions.
“These workers were very aware of their position in the labour market,” Dr Barratt said.
They saw gig work as a last resort, while others saw it as a stopgap measure while they looked for ‘real’ jobs.
Dr Barratt acknowledged that the survey was restricted to people still doing gig work and did not cover those who had ceased this type of work.
He also noted that perceptions were coloured by the countries that many ridesharing and food delivery workers came from.
One source of frustration for gig workers was the reliance on algorithms to allocate jobs via an app.
They knew the app collected data on their performance but they didn’t know how the data was used to award them work.
Another concern was the lack of control and lack of certainty about their income.
This aligned with the findings of the national survey.
Compared to professional services workers and those doing odd jobs and maintenance work, transport and food delivery workers were significantly less satisfied with their ability to set the price for their services and with gaining new skills or improving existing skills.
Dr Barratt expressed concern that the regulatory system was not equipped to handle gig workers properly.
He noted the Fair Work Commission had consistently ruled that gig workers were independent contractors, rather than employees.
“You’ve got a regulatory system designed for 20th century work and a really novel form of work arrangement,” he said.
“There is a really big disjoint between how regulations are written and applied and how the work is actually designed.
“It was only when we spoke to the workers and understood how this was occurring in reality that we discovered how big that disjoint was.”
The national survey shed light on regulatory grey areas surrounding gig workers.
Most notably, more than a quarter of the survey participants said their current platform treated them as employees.
Nearly half the survey respondents said their main platform did not cover them for any type of work-related insurance, such as work-related injuries.
Nearly the same proportion (40 per cent) said their main platform required them to take out their own insurance.
More than 20 per cent of survey respondents did not know if their platform provided insurance cover or if they were meant to take out their own.