Workplace innovation, including the Airtasker and Uber business models, risk the loss of hard-won protections for workers and the creation a new “hungry mile” in Australia, a leading law professor warns.
Joellen Riley, dean of the University of Sydney law school and professor of labour law, said she welcomed innovation in workplace but warned it came with risks.
“Without a thoughtful system of regulation, we leave everything up to the dog-eat-dog world and some people become serious losers and that’s not good for society,” she said.
It had taken 100 years to ensure the poorest people were working for reasonable wages and conditions and it was important these gains were not lost in new ways of engaging workers.
“There is real innovation in creating these digital platforms and that’s wonderful,” she said.
“But often … they are just creating a new way for the wealthy people to ring their bell for the workers to come running and do very basic tasks.
“In many ways it is old-economy work just being connected in new-economy ways.”
Professor Riley said she knew of many people who had a regular job, holiday and the benefits including long-service leave who boasted of having paid someone $8 an hour to put together IKEA furniture for them. This was less than half the minimum wage.
If people were bidding for jobs to supplement their welfare payments, the question was whether cheap services were being obtained at the expense of taxpayers who provided a basic income through unemployment benefits.
Some people would need to work 12 to 16 hours a day doing as many odd jobs for as many customers as they could just to “scratch together their rent and grocery bill”.
“That’s the kind of work that we worried about back in the days of the hungry mile when we had wharf labourers bidding on a daily basis for a few hours’ work, not knowing whether there would still be work the next day,” Professor Riley said.
Those were days of industrial turmoil, the development of trade unions and a long campaign over many decades to establish fair wages and conditions for workers.
“Where will that come from if too many of our couriers, drivers, odd jobbers … are just at the mercy of this new gig-economy, this new hungry mile?,” Professor Riley said.
The Transport Workers Union is calling on the Australian government to establish a taskforce on the impact of the so-called “sharing economy” and automation on jobs and workplace rights.
An expert panel including Professor Riley will discuss the issue at the union’s national conference in Sydney’s west on Thursday.
TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon said the impact of the share economy and automation was a sleeper issue in Australian politics.
“Malcolm Turnbull says it is exciting, but I suspect most Australians feel deep anxiety,” Mr Sheldon said.
“Cliches about agility, innovation and disruption don’t cut the mustard.
“Nobody wants to hold back technology’s tide, but we need a serious national discussion about how the dividends of technology are fairly distributed. ”
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash last month told a breakfast meeting in Sydney that 40 per cent of existing jobs were expected to be automated in the next 15 years. She said the Uber, Airbnb and Airtasker business models had changed the way Australians do business and this needed to be embraced.
“Whether or not we like it – and sometimes these things can be a little bit scary – when you travel overseas and in particular to places like China, they are already embracing the future of work,” Senator Cash said.
“And if we are to remain a globally competitive economy, it is not a choice for us. We have to ensure our systems and our regulation responds appropriately.
“To do this, we are going to need structural and cultural reform – and in particular in relation to our workplace relations system.”