A successful legal challenge to the status of gig economy workers in the UK could lead to similar moves here, according to some experts

Uber drivers and delivery riders are increasingly winning improved pay and conditions overseas. Australia could soon follow. (Artur Widak, NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • Uber this week forced to pay UK drivers minimum wage and grant them a host of new rights after a landmark Supreme Court ruling.
  • With a similar push happening in Spain, there appears to be support building for Australian gig economy workers to also earn better pay and conditions, according to employment legal service JobWatch.
  • It comes as the Senate debates the Morrison government’s IR omnibus bill, and worker advocates campaign for greater protections for those in insecure work.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australian gig workers could be in line for improved pay and conditions following a landmark ruling in the United Kingdom (UK).

On Wednesday, Uber announced all of its British drivers would be reclassified as workers, as opposed to contractors, guaranteeing them the minimum wage, as well as paid holiday leave, th pension and other conditions, as required by a landmark ruling by the country’s Supreme Court.

While governed by a different legal system, the sweeping reforms could soon reach Australia amid a groundswell of support for neglected gig workers, according to employment legal service JobWatch.

“Rights for gig economy workers are already in the spotlight in Australia,” Zana Bytheway, executive director of the not-for-profit, said. “We saw five food delivery riders lose their lives on the road last year in a two month period, and other delivery drivers have recently been dismissed after publicly protesting changes to their pay.”

The UK ruling is just one of several recent decisions to do better by gig workers, with the Spanish government extending the right to collectively bargain to delivery riders for companies like Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

Bytheway believes the same arguments mounted overseas would proved persuasive in Australian court rooms, as gig workers here continue to challenge their legal status.

Bytheway’s assessment is shared by one of the Australian lawyers at the heart of the UK case, who told the AFR that the precedent had done half the work for Australian courts.

“All that’s left for Australian courts to do is consider whether the requirement that it imposes on drivers in the control of the drivers takes them as far as being employees,” barrister Sheryn Omeri said.

Rather than leave it to the courts however, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) is calling on the Morrison government to be proactive.

“It should not be up to Uber to decide how few rights gig workers get. It is up to the Federal Government to act now and ensure delivery riders and rideshare drivers are not ripped off and are safe in their jobs,” TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said.

“Instead of allowing Uber to introduce static definitions on how they treat their workers, and choosing what bits of rights they will recognise, Australia must put in place a tribunal with full powers to regulate on gig workers’ rights.”

Uber for its part would prefer to work with the government rather than face another court decision.

“In Australia we want to work with Government, industry and workers on reforms that provide stronger benefits and protections for independent contractors in the gig econom,” a spokesperson for the company told Business Insider Australia.

“Sector-wide requirements for platform companies to accrue benefits and provide insurance and other minimum standards, could help improve independent work, ensure a level playing field, and deliver business certainty.”

Australia’s opportunity to reform insecure work

It comes as Australia grapples with the rise and risks of insecure work and the gig economy.

The Senate is currently debating the Morrison government’s industrial relations bill, which seeks to tinker with a range of different IR issues – chief among which are the rights of those in impermanent work.

“We see many cases… where workers are left worse off because of insecure work contracts, casualisation of the workforce, and underpayment of labour hire workers,” Bytheway said.

She mentions the case of Margaret, who worked as a customer service officer for 14 years. The 62-year-old was not entitled to long service leave despite working for the same business for 14 years as she had been employed via three different labour hire companies over the period. When she was eventually made redundant she had few rights and was left with nothing.

Her case is similar to thousands of other Victorians JobWatch deals with each year, Bytheway said, who find themselves underpaid or unprotected in the workplace.

In that vein, JobWatch has made 39 recommendations in relation to the bill. These include a push for the government to tackle “unpaid internships, discrimination against temporary visa workers, sexual harassment in the workplace and the short time limits for workers to make applications for unfair dismissal or dismissals in breach of general protections by their employers”.

Bytheway says the bottom line is that more needs to be done for the increasing number of workers who find themselves falling through the cracks of the IR system.

“Change is needed to better support workers who are falling victim to casual and insecure employment.”

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