Labour law experts say a recent case shows the need for gig worker law reform. 

A case settled out of court involving an Adelaide Uber Eats food delivery driver highlights the need to provide basic employment rights to gig workers, according to criminology researchers.

They say that inadequate legal reforms, limited power of unions and absence of other safeguards covering this new-economy industry continues to disadvantage gig workers and reinforce the power of companies operating in such a ‘precarious’ casual labour market.

The out-of-court settlement hinged on two key mechanisms - ‘algorithm control’ taking responsibility from the company, and a popular narrative of worker autonomy and choice.

The ‘Gupta v Portier Pacific Pty Ltd; Uber Australia Pty Ltd t/a Uber Eats’ case in 2020 hinged on the company’s model of using an algorithm to allocate and manage work so it can offer  flexibility and autonomy for workers in a non-traditional employment model.

“We argue that the gig companies use the algorithm and the ‘flexibility and autonomy’ arguments to take away responsibility from themselves, while spinning the model as a positive for the gig worker (by using the ‘they can choose how much / how often they want to engage’ argument),” says Associate Professor Marinella Marmo, from Flinders University’s College of Business, Government and Law.

A new research paper, published in the Griffith Law Review, focuses on the need for state-corporate legal reforms in Australia – and a broader approach to worker rights in the modern globalised economy – to address harmful impact on gig workers, many of them from multicultural backgrounds who are already disadvantaged in the workforce.

“Drawing on the understanding of the embedded struggles these workers already face due to their socio-legal status, this article contends that the gig economy has created new market conditions that exacerbate the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable workers with insecure work and low wages and even supplying their own tools or vehicle,” says co-author Dr Sanzhuan Guo.

“The Gupta case may be seen to signify the non-existence of employment relations, or at least the need to question whether gig workers are employees in the traditional sense or subcontractors (independent service providers).”

These mechanisms of social control are problematic, says Associate Professor Marmo.

“Firstly, we are only beginning to grasp how big data is being assembled and used by companies, and most often algorithms are depicted as if they deliver neutrality, when they are not,” she said.

“Secondly, the narrative of flexibility and autonomy is normalised as positive, yet it can be another way gig companies may evade their responsibility for their workers.”

The experts say that gig companies are establishing new grounds for the commodification of labour to minimise production costs and time.

This appears to generate new forms of precariousness that produce social harm. 

“The two mechanisms of control reflect a powerful narrative that is difficult to disrupt, because the gig economy has been appropriated, normalised and imposed as socially productive – that is, as serving the greater good,” says researcher Elvio Sinopoli.