Rise of gig economy threatens vulnerable workers

It’s the online worker platform that has been described as ‘insidious’ by the highest ranks of the union movement in NSW. Airtasker, where you are actively encouraged to outbid your fellow worker in a race to the bottom for casual and temporary work, sits at the forefront of what is being hailed as the ‘gig economy’.

In this brave new world of online deregulation and job decentralisation, little government oversight is being applied to these websites. Young workers are at particular risk as a consequence of unscrupulous hiring arrangements, attracted to fast money and a surplus of mostly unskilled labour positions.

Likewise, a large and growing base of applicants makes it tempting for formal and informal employers to take advantage of workers, impacting traditional employment markets and wage earning capacity.

As teachers, you should be aware that the gig economy will be most attractive to students who lack previous work experience. Compared to 30 years ago, more than three times as many young people are now stuck in part time work today. Given this reality, students need to be taught how to approach and handle these platforms, understand their entitlements and learn their protections.

Collectively, we need to stand together as unionists to ensure workers and their family’s rights are safeguarded as more industries fragment and go down this path. These online platforms should only succeed when they are in sync with the worker, with unions and through upholding community values and expectations. Right now, most are only in sync with their profit statements.

Websites such as Airtasker unpick 150 years of protest and agitation for decent conditions.

Costs may vary, but after Airtasker takes its 15% cut and once you deduct expenses, workers are complaining that less of the money actually comes to them. For a ‘sharing economy’, little of the wealth is actually shared by the people who do the bulk of the work. Some economists argue that sites like Airtasker speed up the outsourcing of employment that has been taking place since the 1990s and make it easier to shift workers across to unstable working arrangements.

There is hope: some online platforms have decided to take a more considered and ‘ethical’ path. One site called Stocksy was designed because of the underpayment of photographers for stock images. Photographers will receive up to 50-75% for each photo selected by users, in an industry known for only paying 15-40% for photo royalties. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Unions NSW has taken a central role in the fight to ensure sites like Airtasker pay a livable minimum wage. Recently, they scored a small but symbolic win after a meeting with Airtasker ensured minimum wage rates on the site would now rise 45% to $21.25. The pay rise is expected to apply to small and basic tasks that make up the bulk of Airtasker’s piecemeal worker marketplace.

“Websites such as Airtasker unpick 150 years of protest and agitation for decent conditions. It’s not only the workers directly engaged in gigs on Airtasker who are affected. By encouraging a race to the bottom, everyone suffers,” Unions NSW Secretary Mark Morey said recently in a media statement.

Though advocates from the likes of Uber, Airtasker, freelancer.com, 99 designs and other Australian based decentralised job platforms argue that the work enables young people to earn an extra source of income between jobs or study, Unions NSW says these gig hire platforms actively seek to undermine wages by introducing poor working practices by stealth.

The peak union body for NSW also says that Airtasker does not pay any worker compensation, superannuation and casual leave loadings. Essentially, workers act as bidders in a ‘jobs auction’ that crowd sources earnings out to the lowest bidder, helping to push down wages outside of the traditional Fair Work umpire and with little legislative or independent oversight.

By entrenching and legitimising this style of work hire, we are setting a dangerous precedent in the growing casualisation of our workforce and quickly eroding hard fought workplace protections that took many decades to win.

Think about your role as a teacher in how you approach these online platforms. Vote with your wallet and your conscience.