Tough ‘gig’ – delivery drivers are now essential but denied the rights of employees

A delivery worker dropping off food to a customer's front door

As Australia readjusts to drastic measures announced by the Federal Government to close many businesses for the next few months, food delivery workers have become an essential service to an isolated population. But little thought has been given to this front line workforce, who are putting themselves at risk, without basic employee rights.

Along with home delivery of groceries, pharmaceuticals and alcohol, demand for food delivery is fast increasing.

The new social distancing measures have sparked a ‘working from home revolution,’ positioning food delivery platforms, such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo as the lifeblood to cafes and restaurants that can now only sell takeaway food.

A delivery worker in Australia, dropping off essentials to an isolated older lady

But it’s a situation that has provoked serious questions. Not only about whether delivery services are safe, but whether it’s ethical to use them.

Digital platforms like Uber Eats and Menulog are not, after all, ideal employers. In fact, they don’t regard themselves as employers at all, merely facilitators of work by 'independent contractors'.

Food delivery drivers and riders often work for less than the minimum wage and have no employee rights such as sick leave.

Now, we are collectively relying on them to provide an essential service during social distancing. We need to ask as a society, what we owe these workers who continue to put themselves on the front line to deliver essential items to an isolated population.

We urgently need to rethink our relationship with delivery workers in the ‘gig economy.’

A restaurant advertising contactless delivery options for food

Vulnerable to exploitation

I'm interested in how this economic crisis affects food delivery drivers and riders due to my PhD research into the experience of migrant gig workers.

My ongoing research has found migrants are already 'socially distanced', without deep networks of family or friends. They are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

Most food delivery work is done by migrants, through third-party digital platforms like Uber Eats and Deliveroo, which forgo the protections and rights of normal staff members.

A 2019 survey commissioned by the Victorian government suggested about 7 per cent of the workforce used digital platforms to get gig work, the most common being Airtasker (35 per cent), Uber (23 per cent), Freelancer (12 per cent), Uber Eats (11 per cent) and Deliveroo (8 per cent).

Previous research suggests many choose gig work simply because it is better than other forms of low-paid work.

Now, food delivery workers face pressure from those displaced from such jobs in hospitality or retail. Complicating the situation is the lack of clarity about whether those on temporary work visas are eligible for income support announced for other workers as part of the government’s response to COVID-19.

Platforms don’t owe gig workers a minimum wage, so they can sign up as many 'independent contractors' as they like. This improves the service for customers, and increases profit for the platform, but means individual deliverers have fewer opportunities to earn money.

Increased health risks

Many delivery services are implementing contactless delivery procedures. But the lack of defined employer responsibility in the platform economy means patchy attention to the extra physical and mental health risks gig workers now face.

Unions and others have urged delivery platforms to provide protective equipment such as gloves, face masks and sanitisers. Responses from platforms have been limited.

On March 17, UberEats issued a statement outlining a plan to provide funding of $5 million to independent restaurants across Australia and New Zealand. The multimillion-dollar fund will allow restaurants to deploy promotions to attract customers and will help restaurants time offers to suit their individual business needs.

The statement failed to include a plan to issue safety gear, simply noting the company had started a campaign “reminding Uber Eats users that they can request deliveries be left on their doorsteps”.

Not surprisingly, delivery workers are scared they will catch the coronavirus.

Uber says it will financially assist drivers and riders “diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine by a public health authority” for a period of up to 14 days.

But what if a worker with viral symptoms wants to self-isolate as a precaution? There’s no sick leave or workers compensation, and they risk 'deactivation' if work isn’t accepted.

A food delivery driver on their bicycle in Australia
A delivery worker wearing a mask with two deliveries in hand

Legal protection

Social distancing measures mean the delivery economy and the health of the general population are now intimately linked.

To secure and safeguard this now essential service, it is time the law ensures gig workers have the same legal rights and protections as other employees.

We need the delivery drivers coming to our doors to be healthy. That health depends on their safety as well as economic and social inclusion.

A customer ordering takeaway on their iphone app

Time to act

Government and industry need to urgently implement economic, safety and social inclusion measures for vital delivery workers, including access to supplementary payments. We could follow the lead of overseas officials who have offered gig workers delivery jobs during the pandemic.

Platforms should also offer more benefits and compensation to delivery partners and supply protective equipment to workers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, moving ‘towards a fairer gig economy’.

If Australia wants to stay true to our cherished 'fair go' values, then the devastating potential impact of COVID-19 on our most vulnerable workforces demands that we reconsider our relationship with the delivery economy.

This is an expanded edition of an article published in The Conversation.

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