(Image: Supplied)

What does it take to roll back precarious work and underpayment through the gig economy? Not, it seems, government action, but the threat of public scrutiny through a Senate committee process.

A Senate inquiry into job security, established last year by Labor and chaired by former Transport Workers Union (TWU) boss Tony Sheldon, held its first hearings yesterday and they’ll continue for two more days, then resume next week. Yesterday the inquiry heard from a number of major gig economy companies: Uber and Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Ola and Menulog.

That’s already resulted in change, with Menulog declaring it was “morally obligated to do more” and announcing it would trial minimum wages and entitlements for its riders, in exchange for them working exclusively for the company. The TWU immediately welcomed the move and the fact that “socially conscious consumers” could use a service that “aligned with their values”.

Menulog also wants a new employment classification somewhere between a contractor and an employee. But it already employs riders directly in other countries.

The net is closing in on the scam that is the “gig economy” and its myth that workers are just rugged individualists who want nothing more than to be their own boss and ride round feeling the bracing winds of capitalism through their hair. The TWU is awaiting the decision in the case it brought against Deliveroo over the company’s sacking of rider Diego Franco. In the UK, Uber is dealing with the Supreme Court’s ruling that its drivers are employees — a resolution of a long-term and bitterly fought case. Uber has already settled one case here in order to prevent a court ruling on the status of its drivers.

With Menulog seizing the first mover advantage, it can now parade as the consumer choice of social consciousness, at the expense of competitors who continue to fight against workers.

The shift comes as wages growth in Australia continues to drag along at historical lows, not helped by the fact that many of the jobs created in 2020 as the economy plunged into and out of recession were gig economy jobs, not traditional employment.

The government’s attitude to precarious work has been to cheer it on and run scare stories about the costs of providing gig economy workers with the most basic of entitlements. That is, the gig economy is simply another front of the government’s war on wages, along with its support for penalty rate cuts, its opposition to minimum wage rises, its recent industrial relations bill and its bans on public sector pay rises. The pushback against the abuses of the gig economy has instead come from unions, Labor and the courts, where Uber’s claims to be just a humble platform linking consumers and providers have been openly mocked.

Now the industry’s claims have been undermined by one of its own members. What will further Senate hearings elicit from other companies?

Are you more likely to use a ridesharing or food delivery service that provides better wages and support to its drivers? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.