Uber drivers have massed outside the company’s Melbourne headquarters, part of a global protest against the ride-sharing giant.
- Drivers say they are struggling to make the minimum wage and earning money is becoming increasingly hard
- They also say they feel powerless and are fearful of complaining due to the possibility of losing work
- Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas has flagged possible action against tech companies dominating the on-demand economy
The noisy meeting comes a day after the Victorian Government released submissions made to its inquiry into the so-called on-demand or gig economy that allocates short-term work via applications on smartphones.
Driver Deb has been working for the company for two years but is classified as an independent contractor rather than an employee. She provides and maintains her own vehicle, pays for petrol, registration, insurance and other costs.
“Uber started here with the myth of being a tech innovator,” she said.
“Globally there’s 3 million cars on the road. Globally that represents a conservatively valued investment of $50 billion [by drivers].
“Driver investment is a huge part of Uber’s operating capital. Uber couldn’t afford to buy our cars, they couldn’t afford to run our cars.”
Driver Andrew, who also declined to give his surname, said he worked 60 to 70 hours a week but, after four years with the company, was finding himself earning about $700 a week, less than the minimum wage of $719.20 a week.
“It’s a struggle,” he said. “It’s getting worse, it’s getting harder to make a dollar.”
Industrial relations laws are now primarily the responsibility of the Federal Government, but that has not stopped the Victorian Government from launching a year-long inquiry into the workforce of on-demand employers.
Treasurer Tim Pallas flagged potential action against the global tech companies that dominate the on-demand economy.
While not wanting to prejudge the inquiry, which runs to the end of the year, Mr Pallas said the submissions demonstrate more needs to be done.
“If you seek to provide a service, physically, in this country, then there are opportunities for the state to ensure the provision of those services are adequately accounted for and the workforce are responsibly dealt with,” he said.
“We do need to satisfy ourselves that adequate protections and safeguards are being put in place in order to ensure the welfare and the wellbeing of the people who provide those vital services to the community.”
Uber says many drivers live in areas of high unemployment
In its submission, Uber said more than 30,000 Victorians use it to earn money, and use it to access the lower rungs on the employment ladder.
It said the 10 suburbs in Melbourne with the highest number of resident Uber drivers were suburbs with a mean unemployment rate of approximately 9 per cent, above the national average of 5 per cent.
“We do not believe the solution can be found in restricting how people choose to work, or pushing them into traditional modes or definitions of work,” the company’s submission contended.
This is in line with other on-demand employers, who want to morph employment laws to provide greater flexibility.
Essentially, they want to be able to provide benefits — such as insurance or superannuation — to independent contractors, without that leading to the legal liability that those people become employees.
Food delivery service Menulog said regulation should be “re-framed to appropriately reflect the realities of on-demand work” rather than attempting to “shoe-horn” gig economy workers into existing laws.
Rival food delivery service Deliveroo argued similarly, that: “Companies should not have to be forced, as they effectively are now, to choose between offering workers a relationship with a great deal of flexibility and fewer benefits or a relationship with much less flexibility and more benefits.”
The service contended in its submission that its riders’ greatest desire was for flexibility.
If they became employees and were paid and given benefits according to a traditional definition, the “demand for work with Deliveroo would likely fall as it would no longer be highly flexible in nature and therefore not as popular”.
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‘Like dealing with a ghost’
Former Fair Work commissioner Natalie James, who heads the inquiry, said many of these workers in the field were vulnerable and the lack of transparency in arrangements between gig employees and platforms was a critical, recurring theme.
“People often feel they don’t understand how the platforms work,” she explained.
“They feel sometimes that there is unilateral and unexplained conduct.
“One worker who made a submission to the inquiry talked about wanting to raise some issues with their platform and said, ‘It was like dealing with a ghost’.”
Although drivers and food delivery services like Uber Eats and Deliveroo are the most visible manifestations of the gig economy, submissions also detailed effects in the provision of care, particularly for the elderly and disabled.
Tour guide Catherine Cardinet, 60, told the inquiry there were few jobs for people at her age, so she had to accept the on-demand nature of it, even if the benefits were meagre.
“Only one of the companies out of the 18 who have me on their books pays super,” she said.
Cleaner Sylvia submitted that she paid for her own chemicals, equipment, insurance and tax, and missed out on holiday pay, sick leave, long service leave or job security.
“Why can’t a business hire cleaners the way they hire any other staff? Hoping that one day the laws will change and every worker will be on wages regardless of their job,” she wrote.
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‘Punished for asserting my rights’
Samantha has worked for on-demand employers in a range of industries including hospitality, customer service, administration, event management and teaching.
“I am somewhat hostile to this new form of work because it clearly and unfairly advantages one side [business] over the other [the people who perform the labour] in new and perverse ways,” she wrote.
A complaint about being paid monthly ended with the cessation of her shifts. The job was readvertised on the same platform shortly after.
“Basically I was punished for asserting my rights,” she said.
Back at the protest, full-time Uber driver Robin said he was driving 12 hours a day in split shifts. Beyond the low wages, the precarious nature of his employment is magnified by drivers’ inability to access any grievance processes.
“We are powerless really,” he said.
“When we make a complaint we get an automated response — it’s not a human, it’s a machine.
“The moment a rider gives a complaint, that’s it: we are deactivated with no further notice.
“The next morning when we go out to work? We are de-activated. This protest? Let it be the beginning of everything.”