Lately, however, this system of workplace protections has been fraying at its edges. One reason is the rise of the “gig economy”, with couriers and drivers being its most visible representatives. Gig work is short-term, often repetitive, and tightly managed by one of the many apps that now offer this kind of work.
Controversially, most gig workers operate legally as independent contractors, not employees, putting them outside Australia’s net of workplace protections.
If you’ve ever caught an Uber or ordered a meal on Deliveroo, then you’ve participated in this gig economy. These companies have boomed in popularity by offering customers greater choice, convenience, and often lower prices. But have you ever considered the experiences of those whose labour makes these cut-price services possible – your Uber driver or the rider carrying your dinner?
The gig economy has divided opinion. Researchers have pointed to problems, including low pay, intense worker surveillance, and safety issues. Unions have lobbied for changes to workplace laws to prevent workers’ exploitation.
Governments are taking an interest, with Victoria initiating a public inquiry into gig work. All the while, major platform companies say that new regulation is unnecessary as their “driver-partners” or “riders” gain from the flexibility of working as contractors instead of employees.
Until recently, consumers have barely featured in these debates. We haven’t known if most consumers are sceptics or supporters of platforms, despite the obvious efforts that these companies make to appeal to consumers and the fact that consumers drive the demand for gig workers.
So, what do consumers think about gig work? Our research shows that most Australians (71 per cent) agree that gig work benefits people who are looking for flexible schedules, including older workers (68 per cent). Australians are split 50/50 on whether gigs provide good entry-level jobs and are unconvinced that gigs help workers to build careers (only 30 per cent agree). Most emphatically, very few of us (13 per cent) believe that gig work promotes financial security for workers.
People who have used gig platforms are typically more positive about gig work, except in relation to financial security. Platform users and non-users are united in their scepticism about this aspect of gig work.
Gig economy users are still a minority of the population, however, and they are younger, more educated, and more urbanised than other Australians. Whether for ride-hailing, food delivery, or household-based tasks, people who use gig platforms for these services are easily outnumbered by those who have not.
This ‘uncommitted majority’ of Australians, who have not yet used platforms, offers great potential for campaigners seeking to improve working conditions in the gig economy. Most Australians do not yet have a settled view about gig work’s pros and cons. They could be swayed by resonant messages, especially if these target its widely recognised weak point: gig workers’ financial plight.
If you already use gig platforms or are intending to, explore your range of options. Platforms offer different deals to workers, with some taking a larger cut of each transaction than others. Depending on where you live and what you need done, you may be able to find similar providers that put more money back into gig workers’ pockets.
If you get an opportunity, talk to your driver or courier and hear what their experiences have been like on different platforms.
Campaigns that build awareness of the risks that go with gig work, particularly those that appeal broadly to the ethical instincts of the uncommitted majority of Australian consumers, are the most likely to garner support.
Failing that, the more problematic features of gig work may soon be locked in as standards that most of us largely accept in exchange for cheaper services.
Dr Joshua Healy, is from the Centre for Workplace Leadership at The University of Melbourne; Dr Andreas Pekarek, Department of Management and Marketing, The University of Melbourne; Professor Ariadne Vromen, Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney.