Unions NSW and Airtasker have struck a “world first” agreement, imposing “minimum conditions” for gig economy workers. But the deal appears to be entirely optional and possibly unenforceable. Is this a genuine step forward for gig economy workers, or merely a symbolic and cosmetic gesture?
“My understanding is that it’s entirely an opt-in process, which is interesting, but the question really is the implementation — is it going to be enforced?” UTS industrial relations associate professor Sarah Kaine told Crikey.
Airtasker is an odd-job website where users can “bid” to complete a task, posted by other users, for a fee (out of which Airtasker takes a 15% administration fee). While the Airtasker website brags of having created over $116 million worth of jobs, it does not currently attract a minimum hourly pay rate or most other employment protections. The website suggests hourly rates for task posters to offer for various classes of work, but if a worker bids at a lower rate of pay than the award minimum wage (not inconceivable, given the competitive nature of Airtasker work), that isn’t technically illegal. The new deal doesn’t change that, although it will make the suggested rates higher.
Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey told Crikey that before the union’s negotiations with Airtasker, the advertised standards were below minimum rates of pay — the new recommended rates now take into account the award minimum rate, a 25% casual loading and Airtasker’s fee.
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“It’s important to note that this is just a start,” he said. “These rates are not binding, but they do create standards in what had been an industrial relations jungle.”
Airtasker CEO Tim Fung told Crikey was important to work with regulators, stakeholders and government “in order to create a sustainable company in the long term”.
The announcement also spruiked a new “independent dispute settlement procedure,” as opposed to Airtasker’s existing system, wherein disputes are settled by company appointed mediators. A major worry for Kaine is that Airtasker appears to be distancing itself from this part of the new deal, which would be the one mechanism by which workers might enforce their rights.
“They’ve said ‘oh, we’re just in discussions, we haven’t agreed to anything’,” she said. “That was the place where you might have seen some implementation and enforcement, but as Airtasker have been at pains to say they haven’t agreed to anything, it’s a little unclear.”
Morey said the the parties (along with the Fair Work Commission) planned to meet and “work out” the dispute resolution process, but insisted that when implemented, the new process will be “independent and binding.”
Fung confirmed that Airtasker had agreed to the meeting but restated that this initiative was “at discussion stage only,” and said he couldn’t comment on whether the process would be legally binding.
Further, he emphasised Airtaskers opposition to “implementing rigid systems or unnecessary processes, which would ultimately increase friction and reduce the amount of jobs created for Australian workers”.
“Airtasker has marketplace rules which our community aim to follow and activity is monitored through a combination of algorithms, the Airtasker Support moderation team as well as our community who are empowered to report issues as they arise,” he said.
Morey said this deal was a sign of things to come.
“Airtasker is a great start, but it is only a start, and various unions are building campaigns that deal with the many issues thrown up by big economy platforms,” he said.
Crikey has previously reported on what the gig economy does to workers’ rights. The gig economy presents unions with a challenge — how do you organise such a disparate workforce, who in most cases are not classified as employees? Kaine says the agreement is a “good effort.”
“I don’t want to downplay the significance of Union NSW and Airtasker trying to reach some kind of agreement,” Kaine said. “It shows a real effort to grapple with how you improve conditions in the gig economy, which, let’s face it, our regulators haven’t done yet.”
“The gig economy has shredded rights and conditions across many industries,” he said “Regulation has not kept pace with technological change.”
Is the deal merely symbolic and cosmetic, or is it a genuinely a significant move forward?
The answer may be a little of both.
“I think any attempt by companies and unions to come together to improve to conditions of the lowest paid is good — so that is important, and it is symbolic,” Kaine said. “But I am sceptical of the practical implementation.”