“The deaths of five delivery riders in two months is a devastating tragedy,” Michael Kaine, national secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) told a rally of about 50 people outside the headquarters of Uber Eats in Sydney on November 25.
“Delivery riders, who have been called quite rightly ‘heroes of the pandemic’, were delivering food to homes and businesses in lockdown.
“They were an important part of our safety and one of the reasons why Australia is doing so well in this challenging coronavirus environment.
“Now these workers are being slaughtered on our roads because of the greed of these so-called ‘tech companies’, such as Uber Eats, and the absolute failure of the federal government to act to provide basic protections for these workers in the gig economy,” he said.
Delivery riders’ work arrangements are highly deregulated. The businesses they work for are structured to avoid even the basic employer requirements to provide adequate training, protective gear, sick leave, insurance and the right to appeal unfair sackings.
Like other “gig workers”, the delivery riders are employed as “independent contractors”, a convenient myth for their employers — often huge multinational corporations.
As Kaine explained in a November 24 opinion piece for the Guardian the “vulnerable gig economy workers are governed and paid by an algorithm, with a star system appraising their work”.
A TWU survey of 200 delivery riders in September showed that average earnings of delivery riders after costs were just over $10 an hour. Further, nearly 90% of riders reported their pay had dropped and 70% said they were struggling to pay bills and buy food.
Because the riders are paid so little, they are often forced to work across multiple apps just to pay their bills, and this adds to the pressure to take greater risks.
The TWU survey also found that “more than one in three had been injured on the job, with the vast majority (80%) receiving no support from their company”.
“If these riders are a minute late with food deliveries, they can be sacked. They can earn half the minimum wage, and are placed under extreme pressure to make deliveries in an unrealistic time frame,” Kaine said.
“The companies they work for don’t care if they live or die so long as they get food to customers on time.”
The five deaths since September 27 that prompted the vigil outside the Uber Eats headquarters may not be the only delivery rider deaths in Australia in this period because they are not recorded as workplace deaths.
Rider fatalities seem to becoming more frequent.
Rider Bijoy Paul (27) was killed at about 11am on November 21 while delivering McDonalds in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale. Less than 30 hours later, another rider was killed when he was hit by a truck in Redfern.
The New South Wales government has established a taskforce and parliamentary inquiry into the gig economy, but its findings not expected to be released until late next year.
Riding representative group Bicycle Network said the inquiry’s findings “must be expedited so a better workplace for food delivery riders can be made as soon as possible,” according to the November 26 New Daily.
“We cannot wait 12 months until reforms are made to bring gig-economy standards into line with what Australians expect and deserve,” the Bicycle Network said.
The Victorian government has a similar inquiry underway, but the network said that states cannot address the problem these billion-dollar global tech giants have created in a piecemeal way. “We need the federal government to act and regulate.”
Companies, including Uber, have “been allowed to get away with trampling on workers’ rights and risking their lives”, Kaine said.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus told the rally that many riders are overseas students and migrants, were refused JobKeeper and JobSeeker by the federal government and told by the PM to “fend for yourself”.
“That’s what he said to hundreds of thousands of people who were left stranded in Australia, and still are today.
“To feed themselves, they have had to pick up any job that is available.
“Uber Eats, Deliveroo and the others made record profits during COVID-19.
“If we don’t fix the problem of having work allocated by an App, this will soon affect everyone in the workforce. We can’t continue to have two classes of workers in this country, the gig economy casuals and the rest.
“These riders need to have the same rights as other workers in Australia,” McManus said.
A minute’s silence was held for the five delivery workers who died. Flowers were placed next to photos of the killed riders: Xiaojun Chen, Dede Fredy, Chow Khai Shien, Bijoy Paul and a fifth worker who is yet to be named.
“A year ago at this same place, we asked Uber Eats to accept a Charter of Rights for On-Demand Food Delivery Riders,” Kaine said. “We are going to fight for justice for these riders and their families.”