OPINION: Gig economy shift carries a message for owner drivers

By: Warren Clark

With the increasing focus on regulation of the gig economy, we have to ensure owner-drivers aren't negatively impacted

OPINION: Gig economy shift carries a message for owner drivers
Further regulation of gig workers will come into play, threatening to impact owner drivers

Now that the dust has settled on a long and drawn-out federal election campaign, we can settle back into some degree of normality and get on with the job of earning a crust. Right? Not so fast.

Tough economic conditions, stubbornly high fuel costs and determined efforts on many fronts to increase regulation of the so-called gig economy make it an important time to defend the status of owner drivers.

Not long before polling day, the Australian Industry Group published a fascinating paper called ‘Busting the Myths of the Gig Economy’.

It is an important document for two reasons. Firstly, it reinforces that gig economy workers are only a small percentage of the workforce. Secondly, it calls for some form of regulation at the federal level. 

On the first point, AIG pointed out that the proportion of the workforce who are platform workers is very small. In 2016, and based on a selection of digital platform information, bank transaction data and other research reports, the Grattan Institute assessed that fewer than 0.5 per cent of the workforce earned income from digital platform work.

AIG says this figure remains a reliable estimate and it is supported by Australian Bureau of Statistics classification data and the authoritative HILDA (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) Report.

The 2018 HILDA report’s authors said that "if the gig economy is growing as rapidly as is commonly believed, then either it involves the substitution of one type of self-employed worker for another [as might be happening in the taxi industry] or it is largely consigned to second jobs".

In short, despite its visibility, the gig economy is not exploding and most platform workers do this type of work as secondary employment. Many work for multiple platforms and are logged on to different ones at the same time.

All this this is important, given moves by states and territories to have different models in play for regulation of gig workers.

The Victorian government has released a Consultation Paper on minimum standards for on-demand workers. A non-government Parliamentary Committee in New South Wales wants the Industrial Relations Commission, or another tribunal, to set minimum pay and conditions for gig workers. Queensland wants its own regulations for ‘independent courier drivers’ based on the NSW Industrial Relations Act, and needs a federal government exemption under the Federal Independent Contractors Act to proceed legitimately.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing it’s the overwhelming need for consistent regulation across the board in matters that impact essential services like road transport.

Regulating independent contractors in the gig economy is a global trend. AIG even wants the federal government to step in and take action. We’ve all seen the worst of delivery riders on the roads and have experienced more than the odd near-miss.

The gig platform providers have put a focus on raising driver and/or rider standards with the large ones signing up to a set of safety principles. That’s a positive step but further change is surely in the wind.

We in the road transport industry need to take note. We need to lobby hard so that owner drivers are not caught in the same wave.

In February, the High Court found that two truck drivers engaged for decades by a company were independent contractors and not employees. That decision has given our sector a degree of comfort and has almost certainly had a positive impact on investment and jobs.

Going down the path of over-regulation would surely be a retrograde step, so NatRoad will be watching this space carefully.

Warren Clark is the CEO of the National Road Transport Association (NatRoad)


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