Urgent need for worker protections in surging gig economy

Rapid food and parcel delivery services are giving us non-stop service with a speed and efficiency that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
But growth in the gig economy – particularly food delivery – comes at a high cost to the workers making convenience possible.

Victoria Police statistics show hundreds of delivery workers have been injured, and two have been killed (Hundreds of delivery riders injured as food app boom creates ‘deadly cocktail’, The Age).

Victoria Police attended 92 crashes involving a delivery rider on a motorbike or bicycle in 2016, this jumped to 143 in 2022.

Between 2016 and 2022, Victoria Police recorded 917 riders involved in accidents attended.

These numbers highlight the vulnerability of riders doing gig economy work, and the need for urgent need for robust worker protections.

The Albanese Government’s Closing the Loopholes Bill was introduced in 2023 to pass a broad suite of industrial relations reforms.

A portion of these reforms were debated and passed, including measures to criminalise wage theft nationally.

However, protections for gig economy workers were delayed until next year as part of a deal struck with crossbenchers.

Until the rest of Closing the Loopholes passes, gig economy workers aren’t recognised as employees. They will continue to miss out on basic workplace rights.

Last year, the McKell Institute conducted one of the biggest-ever surveys of gig economy workers ever done in Australia. More than 1000 food delivery, parcel delivery and ride share workers doing app-based work provided insights into their pay, expenses and conditions.

While gig economy work is often sold by app-based platforms as a flexible “side hustle”, the people doing the work told us they’re working well above full-time hours.

Most have no choice but to always work during peak times, regardless of poor health or bad weather, to make a living.

About 80 per cent of these workers depend on gig jobs for survival. Nearly half earn below the minimum wage.

And, less than 4 per cent felt they have job security. This is hardly surprising, as there is little help available if they’re underpaid, unable to work, or if they’re hurt or abused on the job.

For delivery workers doing app-based work, their only certainty is the need to show up, and keep working, no matter what.

While there are fewer women working in delivery jobs, those do report high levels of sexual harassment, adding to the stress, anxiety, and mental health problems reported by gig workers surveyed.

If the rest of Closing the Loopholes passes, these workers will no longer be locked outside the system that gives workers rights and recourse.

The food delivery apps have opposed the bill, saying costs would be passed on to customers.

But there is no case to be made for denying people doing a job their basic employee rights. Small delivery fee increases are a small price for dignity and safety.

Most workers we surveyed agreed reform was needed.  The protections they require are basic — fair pay, safety, and confidence they can earn at least the minimum wage.

In Victoria, a state-based system now offers gig workers protection, including a sick pay guarantee. New regulated standards and a gig worker support service were announced in 2022.

The businesses and consumers using these services have not been unfairly charged or penalised.

Demand for rapid delivery is surging, driven by growing expectations for prompt and efficient service.

But so long as these workers are vulnerable, all of us who benefit from their labour are failing them.

Rebecca Thistleton, Executive Director, The McKell Institute Victoria