Like many new arrivals, Bijoy Paul proudly posed in front of Sydney’s famous landmarks when he landed in early 2019. He was thrilled at the opportunity to live and study in Australia, posting on social media: “thanks to my Almighty for having an auspicious journey.” He was here to study a master of information technology, but for income he worked as a delivery rider for Uber Eats.
Just after 11am on Saturday, Bijoy was killed on Sydney’s roads. He was hit by a car in Rockdale while delivering McDonald’s. He was 27.
A little over 30 hours later, another young food delivery worker would die too, this time in Redfern, after being hit by a truck.
In just the past two months, five delivery drivers have been killed in Australia – the ones we know of since they are not recorded as workplace deaths.
The deaths represent the total failure of a system which never should have been allowed to thrive. It’s a system that denies its workers sick leave, the right to challenge unfair sackings, training, protective gear and insurance. It stands as a blatant contradiction of the working conditions generations of Australians fought for.
Riders get no minimum pay and are pushed to work at breakneck speed. Yet they have no right to training or proper protective gear.
Multinational corporations such as Uber and Amazon promote themselves as shiny and futuristic. Yet they reap billions the same way their industrialists forefathers did: off the backs of vulnerable, voiceless workers.
We’ve allowed their gig economy to quietly establish itself as an unregulated, secondary labour market. If it’s not reined in you can guarantee it will spread to other industries.
We should all educate ourselves about how they’ve managed to jam a foot in the door of our industrial system.
Their scheme largely revolves around the myth of a system of “independent contractors” and the creation of a market where individuals can exchange their labour for a fair return based on demand.
The system, however, is anything but fair. Vulnerable gig economy workers are governed and paid by an algorithm, with a star system appraising their work. The results are workers toiling for longer hours for less money, with many receiving well under the hourly minimum wage.
So what can sensibly be done?
For a start, we can’t allow delivery and ride share companies decide what sort of employment laws they want to operate under. This is what has recently happened in California, where tech companies successfully lobbied voters to have their own special exemptions to newly passed laws which reclassified independent contractors as full-time employees.
We must also shift away from this idea of work being a series of “gigs” instead of jobs. Work should be rewarded with fair pay and conditions which protect the worker.
Workers need rights that are enshrined in law and an independent tribunal system that can hear their concerns and give them the benefits and protections they need.
In New South Wales independent contractors who own their own trucks have long had access to a system which allows them to band together and demand standards for their work, including rates which cover all the costs of their labour and business.
There is nothing impenetrable or futuristic about the exploitative model behind delivery apps. Australians have seen it all before and we can sort it out again with just a modicum of political will.
• Michael Kaine is the national secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union