The gig economy is broken – here’s how we can fix it

As it stands, workers of the gig economy have no rights, and are battling against an unfair system. 



Earlier in the year, the Fair Work Ombudsman ruled against the workers of the gig economy, believing that they didn’t qualify as employees, and therefore were not eligible for minimum wage, annual leave, superannuation and sick leave regardless of the hours they spend on the job each day.

In reaching the decision, the FWO’s Sandra Parker noted that “…for relationship to exist, the courts have determined that there must be, at a minimum, an obligation for an employee to perform work when it is demanded by the employer.”

In conversation with The Big Smoke, Greens MP Adam Bandt said that “the convenience of the gig economy and new technologies shouldn’t come at the cost of workers. In Australia, the effects of the increase in contract, freelance and temporary work are being powerfully felt. Thanks to research done by the Transport Workers Union, we know that three in four food delivery riders are paid below the minimum wage.

This statistic is shocking, but it should come as no surprise to a typical worker for Uber Eats, Foodora or Deliveroo, many of whom are paid as little as $6 an hour.

By hiring gig economy workers as independent contractors or engaging them through intermediary agencies, corporations get away with denying them the wages employees receive by right. Sometimes, workers can be left with zero dollars an hour, as there are no guarantees of deliveries and no additional hourly payment.

These revelations should outrage us. They show us that when technology combines with neo-liberalism, the worst aspects of a market economy are intensified. We live in a time when wage growth is stagnating, wage theft is normalised and underemployment is an epidemic. The government has abandoned its responsibility to provide proper regulation, allowing corporations to make millions at the expense of their own workers. Gig economy workers are often struggling to subsist in an economic system that doesn’t care about their welfare.”

>Mark Graham is the co-author of The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction. In a piece printed by the World Economic Forum, he outlined the four ways that the gig economy needs to change.

1) We need more transparency about the nature of gig work itself. 

Users, investors, workers, and regulators all need to know more about the nature of the jobs being created and how they might fall short of decent work standards. To that effect, my colleagues and I have started the Fairwork project: an initiative that scores platforms against 10 criteria around fair work practices. Those scores can be used to directly compare platforms against one another.



2) We need more accountability within the sector. 

At the moment, many platforms operate in regulatory gaps and often allege that existing regulation doesn’t apply to them. “We’re a technology company,” they will claim – rather than recognise that they are in fact a high-tech taxi company, food delivery company or cleaning company, and so on. We therefore need to ensure that work and workers are either protected by existing regulation or we need to develop new approaches.


3) We should acknowledge that transparency and regulation will only get us so far. 

Real change will happen when workers are able to collectively rather than individually negotiate with their bosses. Gig workers are often treated as individual businesses who should compete against one another. But it is once they come together as colleagues that they can collectively bring about better wages and working conditions.



4) Finally, the real future of the gig economy that we should be looking to is one characterised by democratic ownership. 

There is no reason why gig workers shouldn’t be their own bosses. In many places, platforms are becoming utilities. Consider Uber’s desire to become an “operating system for your everyday life”. Our cities will undoubtedly need operating systems. But we should ask ourselves whether we want a privately managed operating system run by an unaccountable company based in another country – or a locally-managed, locally-owned, democratic and accountable one.

We can’t turn back the clock to a world with no platforms. But by looking to strategies that involve transparency, accountability, worker power and democratic ownership, we have in front of us the tools to move towards a less exploitative and more just platform economy.

The platform economy in 2030 could be one in which consumers know more about their impacts, regulators are enforcing minimum standards, workers are exercising their collective power, and we have all found ways of building, supporting, and using democratically run and accountable gig economy platforms.



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