Australia, Transport News

TWU push for gig economy reform comes to a head with legislation proposal

The Transport Workers Union’s protests surrounding reform and minimum standards for workers within the ‘gig economy’ appear to have been heard by the federal government

Unhappy workers make for an unhappy industry. It’s the reality the federal government had to face when transport workers from all walks of life, all corners of Australia, and all manners of work showed up on their Canberra doorstep in early August.

For some, it was their first time making the trip to the frigid conditions of the nation’s capital. Others have all but lost count. They all share a common goal though – wanting changes made to the industry they love to make work, and life, safer and fairer for everyone who has a part in it.

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) convoy, over 600 strong, featured representatives from companies and organisations including Global Express, Toll, Linfox, Bevchain, ACFS, FBT Transwest, NatRoad, Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation (ARTIO), and National Road Freighters Association (NRFA).

Few are left behind. The message is clear from one TWU member, Johnny Walters: “if you’ve got wheels on something you go to work with, you’re a transport worker”.

Many are gig workers, not quite employees, but ‘employee-like’, as many reports describe them. They are owner drivers, subcontractors, delivery workers, rideshare drivers – roles that many within the industry are working in.

A 2023 Department of Employment and Work Relations (DEWR) report outlines the needs of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to set standards for these gig workers.

The DEWR estimates that 8.3 per cent of the Australian workforce works as independent contractors, totalling more than 1.1 million Australians in 2022.

In the same report, it estimates that 40,000 of the 260,000 in the road transport industry are independent contractors, mostly owner drivers. This accounts for more than 15 per cent of road transport workers.

As a result, new legislation is set to be tabled in September by the federal government, outlining a process to give the FWC capabilities to enforce standards for gig workers. Workplace relations minister Tony Burke is announcing the conditions of the ‘closing loopholes bill’.

While there are still many questions to be addressed, it seems as though the TWU might be getting closer to receiving answers.

“This is a remarkable piece of legislation that, if passed, will revolutionise the gig economy,” TWU national secretary Michael Kaine says.

“The archaic idea that workers’ rights depend on the label attached to them has meant that many who desperately need protections have missed out, with lethal consequences.

“The reform outlined today would give the FWC the capacity to take a holistic view of gig work, how it is performed, and examine how much control or autonomy a gig worker really has, before setting appropriate standards to ensure they can work safely and are not exploited.

“This is a ground-breaking system that would provide genuine flexibility for gig workers for the first time ever. The provision of rights like minimum pay, insurance and protection against unfair deactivation would ease the deadly pressure on transport gig workers to work longer, faster and at certain times of night just to make ends meet.

“This legislation was fought for by transport gig workers, and in memory of those that have been tragically lost. We urge federal parliament to urgently pass this reform to save lives on our roads.”

 TWU national secretary Michael Kaine

This new legislation has been built off the foundation of the Without Trucks Australia Stops report. Made publicly available in August 2021, it was seen at the time as an acknowledgement that reform was required for the transport industry.

Speaking on the footsteps of Parliament, Kaine details the reforms he and his union colleagues are seeking, and the issues in the industry they feel are contributing to its current state

“Transport workers are the backbone of this country,” Kaine says through the microphone.

“Without trucks, Australia stops. If the community ever needed reminding of how vital we are, they had that reminder during the pandemic.

“The lack of standards in this industry has to change. This industry has been squeezed from the top and it’s been squeezed from below. Work has to be done on a shoestring.

“In the gig economy, we’ve got gig operators who have pushed workers outside of the protections we have built up for Australian workers for decades. It’s time for change. We don’t need more reports, we need more action now.”

The mention of the gig economy is a recurring theme as speakers continue to shuffle across the podium. ARTIO secretary Peter Anderson touches on it in a statement released by the TWU.

“The gig economy’s entrance and rapid expansion only spells further doom for our essential industry,” Anderson says.

“We urgently need transport reform passed into law to give all industry participants a fighting chance. The industry has come together like never before because we share the same frustrations, we have the same fears for the future of transport, and we know this reform committed by the Federal Government would unlock the industry’s potential.”

As recently as March, the TWU and food and beverage delivery giant Menulog signed a charter of principles to outline sustainable conditions and contracts for delivery riders. These included Menulog backing the TWU in future government lobbying efforts, transparent rights and standards for riders and appropriate compliance to these standards.

A similar deal was done with Uber and Coles, with the goal to create an independent body or enable the FWC to establish universal earnings protections and standards within the transport industry.

 Uber signed a charter of principles with the TWU earlier this year

“Gig workers make a significant contribution to our economy and this agreement aspires to lift the standard of platform work for more than 100,000 drivers and delivery people using the Uber platform as well as the broader industry,” Uber general manager Dom Taylor says of the partnership.

Many attending the union convoy in Canberra can speak from experience when it comes their work within the gig economy. NRFA board member Gordon Mackinlay has been behind many union movements across the years.

“In 2016, I was one of the owner drivers leading a convoy to Canberra to get the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal abolished,” Mackinlay says.

“Since then, our industry has been overlooked and things have got worse. I have experienced firsthand what the lack of standards in transport can do to an owner operator.

“In 2019, I sold my trucks and went back to being a mechanic. I want the industry to be viable and make full time driving attractive again. There are dozens of others like me. That’s why we need reform, and we need it now.”

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