Workers Left Underpaid And Without Rights In Australia's 'Gig Economy'

Australians like to think we’re a nation of straight-shooters. No-nonsense, bush larrikins with a healthy scepticism of authority.

The banking Royal Commission, however, has shown that Australians are actually too trusting of their institutions, and of the corporate sector in general.

And our trusting nature has been exposed.

As secretary of Unions NSW, I see the spin of the corporate world every single day. And it’s not just the banks who are having us on.

The biggest corporate con artists in Australia today are not financial planners. They are the companies using loopholes in workplace laws to turn low-paid workers into independent contractors and suppress wages.

Protesters rally in support of food delivery riders in Sydney, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Image: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Beneath the façade of our modern, first-world economy lies a two-tiered labour market.

There are people employed under the established rules of full-time, part-time and casual employment, and thousands of genuine small business owners and independent contractors operating legitimate enterprises.

And then there is a silent underclass, the exploited underbelly of our labour market.  These are workers without rights the rest of us take for granted.

The extent of this divide in our labour market has been masked by politicians and corporate spin doctors who have sought to redefine exploitation as “innovation”.

Employers like UberEATS and Foodora, for example, use the language of flexibility and freedom to pretend they are offering workers something exciting and fresh.

The Darker Side Of The Food Delivery Business

But the reality is a long way from the hype. As The Project has reported, the example of 24-year-old Frenchman, Julien Trameaux, speaks volumes.

According to his flatmates, Trameaux dreamed of opening a bakery. To support this dream, he worked in construction during the day and as a bicycle courier for UberEATS in the evening.

Then on a Monday evening last November, his bicycle collided with a car at Double Bay in Sydney’s east. Trameaux was killed.

The most his family received was a five-line email from UberEATS. Under the legal structure set up by UberEATS, Trameaux was a “driver partner,” not an employee.

This highlights the huge structural problem for people like Julien Trameaux and more than half a million others on international student or working holiday visas.

Their visas put them in an impossible bargaining position. They are ripe for either institutionalised exploitation, such as that meted out by UberEATS and Foodora, or illegal exploitation, like the flourishing wage theft we see in industries such as hospitality, cleaning, construction and retail.

Part of the reason for this is the interaction between workplace and immigration laws.

A foreign student for example, is entitled to work 20 hours per week. As anyone with basic arithmetic skills knows, that delivers a wage below the poverty line.

"Many foreign students take the only option available, chancing their in the gig economy." (Image: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

And so many take the only option available, working greater hours on illegally low rates of pay or chancing their hand in the gig economy. It’s often a choice between eating or breaking the law.

In Australia it’s easy to avert our eyes to the cleaners, dish washers, security guards or food couriers doing this type of work.

But the operation of a secondary, exploited labour market should be recognized for what it is -- a drain on our economy, a suppressant to economic growth and a stain on our national character.

Instead of piecemeal solutions we need to develop a universal set of minimum standards.  A bill of workers’ rights, if you will.

This would involve a floor price for all labour -- not just for the lucky few.  It would involve the criminalisation of wage theft to make dodgy bosses accountable.

And it would provide dignity and security for all workers in Australia -- regardless of where they come from, and regardless of how they are employed.