Uber Drivers Will Get Landmark Workplace Protections in Australia

“For too long, the balancing of flexibility and the enforcement of strong workplace rights and protections has been seen as a zero-sum game.”
An Uber driver
Photo by Mario Tama / Getty Images

Less than two years after a spate of delivery rider deaths in Australia, Uber drivers are set to receive fairer wages and landmark workplace protections, after the ride-sharing behemoth came to an agreement with the nation’s Transport Workers Union.

As part of the in-principle agreement, Uber’s casual workforce would be represented by an all-new, government-funded independent regulatory body, which would be responsible for rolling out a new minimum wage “safety net” for gig economy workers and offer them a framework to launch workplace disputes. 

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The company would also be forced to recognise the unionisation efforts of its more than 100,000-strong Australian workforce.

Uber’s Australian boss, Dom Taylor, and Uber Eats’ local head Bec Nyst, each posed for photos alongside the union’s boss, Michael Kaine, at a joint press conference in Sydney late on Tuesday evening, closing the book on talks that are reported to have lasted months.

“The principles we signed today are a significant and positive development in the years-long campaign led by gig economy workers to modernise out-of-date industrial laws,” Kaine said.

“For too long, the balancing of flexibility and the enforcement of strong workplace rights and protections has been seen as a zero-sum game.”

Kaine insisted that the agreement would put all debate around the gig economy to rest, and that the introduction of an independent body responsible for bringing about universal earnings protections and minimum standards would actually support flexibility, safety, and security for workers across the industry.

The deal even attracted the praise of Uber’s top boss, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who has spent the better part of his tenure trying to convince consumers that Uber cares about its drivers at all.

Khosrowshahi joined Uber following the tumultuous reign of founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, who developed such a notorious reputation for caring so little for the welfare of his drivers and regulatory guardrails, that his time at the company was turned into a TV series.

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Uber’s local bosses, Taylor and Nyst, admitted that their agreement with the union opens the door to an unlikely allyship, but that they’ve “always” agreed that driver and delivery partners should “come first” and hailed the deal an “important one” for worker protections.

It was only in June last year that the union was calling on SafeWork New South Wales to “shut down Uber”, after the state revealed the details of the latest in a series of four UberEats rider deaths through 2020. At the time, the union slammed UberEats, claiming the company “covered up” by insisting the rider, Burak Doğan, wasn’t logged into the app when he was hit and killed by a truck in April.

He continued to receive order requests from Uber, even as he lay dead, the union said.

Over the last year, however, much has changed. As recently as February, Uber signed on to a memorandum of understanding with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which is an affiliate of the TWU.

Australia’s new Labor government headed to May’s federal election promising to bring an end to the unfair treatment of casual workers around the country. As part of those promises, the party pledged to update the Fair Work Act to account for the bloated gig economy and impose minimum standards for “employee-like” forms of gig economy work.

In a statement the following day, the federal government’s new industrial relations minister, Tony Burke, announced his government would soon empower Australia’s Fair Work Commission to a minimum wage for workers across the gig economy, regardless of the well-intentioned commitments made by Uber, while compelling its competitors to do the same.

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“Without proper regulation, even if a platform tries to do the right thing by their workers—as Uber has today—the risk is they will be undercut by a rival that turns up on the market,” Burke said.

“This will deliver a national approach that gives the commission the scope and flexibility it needs to deal with ‘employee-like’ forms of work.”

The promise was welcomed by unions across the country. Kaine said on Tuesday that there’s an urgent need for reform, particularly as Australia’s state workplace regulatory bodies come to terms with the deaths of eight food delivery drivers through 2020—five of them in the same month.

Just last week, the family of a Hungry Panda delivery rider named Xiaojun Chen, who was killed on the job in Sydney in 2020, was awarded more than $800,000 under the NSW workers’ compensation scheme, as part of what the union said was the first case where a gig economy worker has been considered an employee in Australia.

But Uber bosses deny suggestions that their change of heart comes as a result of increased regulatory pressures and a change of government. Taylor told The Sydney Morning Herald he’s always wanted the best for the company’s drivers and riders, who he says value flexibility above all.

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Recent talks with the union, he said, hinged on how to soften the “trade off” between flexibility and benefits.

“Gig workers make a significant contribution to our economy and this agreement aspires to lift the standard of platform work for more than 100,000 drivers and delivery people using the Uber platform as well as the broader industry,” he told reporters on Tuesday evening.

“We want to see a level playing field for the industry and preserve the flexibility that gig workers value most. It is critical that earners continue to be part of the regulatory conversation and that their collective voice is heard.”

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from Australia’s industrial relations minister, Tony Burke.

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