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Balance needed on new gig worker laws

Next time you get take-away delivered to your home, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the person who delivered the food. While the task of getting the meal to your door is relatively simple, the manner in which that person is employed has become one of the most contentious and complex debates in workplace relations in Australia and many other nations.

The Victorian government is about to wade into that debate. This week it released the largest ever survey of gig economy workers in Australia. The 18-month study found nearly 14 per cent of working-age Victorians have carried out on-demand work. Mostly young, urban and male, they are often living with a disability or are temporary residents. Many speak a language other than English at home. Working for digital platforms such as Airtasker and Uber, they are mostly classified as independent contractors and do not have access to the same protections as employees, including unfair-dismissal provisions, sick leave and the minimum wage.

The gig economy is bigger than you may think.

The gig economy is bigger than you may think.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The survey revealed genuine concerns. More than 30 per cent of respondents did not know if their platform had a dispute resolution process, while nearly half reported they were not provided with work-related insurance. On the flip side, nearly half of gig workers do less than five hours a week, suggesting it is a second job for many, and more than half saw their earnings as “nice to have” but something they could live without. Only 15 per cent said the money was essential for their basic needs.

The use of contractors has been a legitimate practice for decades, often in the case of a company temporarily employing an expert to perform a specific task. But some companies have in recent years taken advantage of contract laws to employ large numbers of workers to do menial tasks and treated them as an inferior grade of worker. In Australia, attempts to give these workers better conditions and rights have had mixed success.

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