The informal work practices of the so-called “gig” economy are widening existing cracks in Australia’s system of labour regulations, and should be repaired through active measures to strengthen labour standards in digital businesses. That is the conclusion of newly-published research from a special symposium on "Work in the Gig Economy," organised by the Centre for Future Work.
The symposium includes contributions from four leading labour market scholars, first presented to a special seminar last year at the conference of the Society of Heterodox Economists in Sydney. The papers have now been published (after a peer-review process) in Economic and Labour Relations Review, an academic journal based at UNSW. The symposium includes research conducted by:
- Prof. Andrew Stewart of the University of Adelaide
- Dr. Jim Stanford of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute
- Prof. Wayne Lewchuk of McMaster University in Canada, and
- Kate Minter, researcher at Unions NSW.
The symposium also features an introductory essay by Frances Flanagan, Research Director at the United Voice trade union.
While the gig economy is often portrayed as an exciting “new” innovation, the work practices embodied in digital platforms are long-standing, and have been utilised by employers for hundreds of years. Jim Stanford’s article describes these historical continuities – including reliance on home work, on-call labour, piece work compensation, and the use of labour intermediaries. While the digital apps now used to coordinate this work are new, the core features of the precarious employment relationships created in digital businesses are not; regulators should learn from this history in their efforts to develop new tools for protecting labour standards in digital businesses.
In their article, Prof. Andrew Stewart and Dr. Stanford highlight several broad options for regulatory reform to close the gaps in labour regulation that allow gig businesses to avoid traditional employment standards (like minimum wages). There is clear potential to more forcefully apply existing labour laws to gig businesses, using test cases and other efforts to clarify that workers in gig businesses should indeed be protected by minimum standards. Clarifying and strengthening the definition of “employee” in existing labour law (so that gig workers are more clearly covered by those laws) would be another promising avenue. Stewart and Stanford urge regulators to be “ambitious, creative, and eclectic” in their efforts to regulate work in the gig economy, to avoid negative social and economic consequences from the erosion of minimum labour benchmarks.
Prof. Wayne Lewchuk shows that conventional labour market statistics understate the prevalence of gig work (and other forms of insecure employment), because merely categorising a job as either “permanent” or “temporary” does not capture the more complex forms of insecure work that are increasingly common in the labour market. Lewchuk also documents the myriad of personal, financial, social, and health consequences of insecure jobs (including gg work).
Finally, Kate Minter’s contribution to the symposium reviews one specific effort to negotiate the application of minimum labour standards within a digital platform business: namely, a process of negotiation between the odd-job platform Airtasker and the peak trade union body in NSW. While the resulting agreement (under which Airtasker agreed to recommend minimum award wage rates as the basis for “costing” the jobs advertised on its platform) is not on its own sufficient to ensure minimum standards will be met, it represents a concrete case of how engagement by all stakeholders (including digital businesses, unions, advocates, and regulators) can build momentum for protecting basic standards in the gig economy.
The final published versions of all articles in the symposium (including the introduction by Frances Flanagan) are available through the Economic and Labour Relations Review's website, or through your local library. Links to pre-publication versions of each article are also provided below.
“Introduction to the Symposium on Work in the Gig Economy”, by Frances Flanagan.
“The Resurgence of Gig Work: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives”, by Jim Stanford:
“Precarious Jobs: Where are They, and How do They Affect Well-Being?”, by Wayne Lewchuk.
“Regulating Work in the Gig Economy: What are the Options?”, by Andrew Stewart and Jim Stanford: