Today, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus has told the National Press Club that the gig economy has pushed “workers’ rights back 100 years”. She has also unveiled the ACTU push to have anyone working casually for more than six months to automatically have the option to become permanent employed.

Meanwhile, that Uber driver with a good memory — and a year’s worth of wages suddenly deposited in his bank on account of the loose lips of the Brothers Stefanovic — has been canned by Uber. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his conduct, his lack of any legal recourse is illustrative.

As the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign ramps up, we’re likely to be bombarded with take and counter-take on modern work, flexibility and innovation going up against entitlements and job security. They are, however, issues which have been discussed for years now.

Here’s a head start, with five articles from the Crikey archives, on what you should be across: 

1. The perils of casual work: the world is not their roster

Back in 2012, when the unions started pushing to make precarious work an election issue, freelance writer and journalist Ava Hubble looked at the huge — and growing — portion of Australia’s workforce subject to the vagaries of casual work:

The Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work concludes its nationwide public hearings in Melbourne on Thursday … The ACTU, which commissioned the inquiry, reports that about 40% of Australia’s workforce of almost 12 million is employed on a casual or contract basis. Consequently, many are well aware of the consequences of being left off a roster for the next shift or semester.

2. What life is like on Newstart: ‘every day is a worry’

In 2013, Amber Jamieson looked at the dangers of casual work and reliance on welfare: 

In the last two months [Hannah Joyner’s] found casual work at a government department. Before then she applied for 10 jobs every fortnight, as per the Newstart demands, and secured one job interview. ‘Every job is suddenly a casual job, a six-month contract. There’s nothing guaranteed, there’s nothing permanent’.

3. The automation revolution begins, with jobs mercilessly crushed beneath robotic heels

In recent years, the assault on long-established work norms has hastened at the hands of technological advances. In 2016, Guy Rundle looked at the establishment of an Amazon Go store in Seattle, entirely free of shop assistants, and the first victims of this progress: 

This will of course all be fine. Just fine. All the jobs and work of the unskilled and low-skilled that are being vaporised will be replaced by new and interesting jobs arising elsewhere, to which the invisible hand of the market will slowly usher them. Just like what happened when mass, high-employment manufacturing and industry closed down in the US and the UK, for example. Thank God that went well and all those industrial areas weren’t allowed to become haunted wastelands of the socially excluded, disregarded by a new elite, and ready to follow anyone giving them a bit of hope and recognition. 

4. What does the gig economy do to workers’ rights?

Meanwhile, the gig economy continued its relentless march — protruding into industries where it arguably didn’t belong. Charlie Lewis wrote about how the high-profile takeovers of the taxi and odd-job market gave way to attempts to assign contractor status (and the attendant loss of work protections and entitlements) to hospitality staff: 

[Squaddle, the ‘Uber of hospitality‘] allows ‘contractors’ to bid for work at restaurants and bars to fill last-minute staffing gaps… Hospitality work has never traditionally been done by contractors. They are not highly skilled, well-paid professionals with autonomy over where and when they work — they have to work set hours, they usually have to wear a uniform, and they have to comply with workplace policies. And even when they’re engaged as employees, they’re consistently and badly underpaid.

5. Uber boss’ departure is a cynical ploy and won’t make the company ‘more ethical’

But, Helen Razer argued, the problem is cyclical. Dodgy work practices save businesses money, and employees with stagnant wage growth, cut penalty rates and precarious work are just consumers who can no longer afford to be ethical:

We, a precariat growing in number, are very likely to keep buying what’s made cheap by other members of our class… If the deaths of more than 1,000 women at Rana Plaza was not sufficient to move me to check my garment labels, allegations of the workplace harassment of a handful of women in San Francisco is not going to prompt me to delete the [Uber] app.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey