Gig economy workers fear livelihoods, customers at risk during coronavirus outbreak – Science

Gig economy workers fear livelihoods, customers at risk during coronavirus outbreak - Science

Delivery services may become a lifeline for Australians stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak, but what about the drivers?

A worker for Deliveroo and UberEats, John* is reminded of the precarity of his position each time a new case is identified in Australia.

Key points:

Gig economy workers are anxious about the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on their health and incomeRiders and drivers for companies like Uber and Deliveroo typically do not get sick leaveThe Transport Workers’ Union wants Uber to offer workers sick leave and health cover, as well hand sanitiser

As COVID-19 spreads in Australia, the people who drive us home and courier our food say they are unsure how to best protect their health, the health of their customers and their income.

“Pretty much, everyone in the industry is scared about the coronavirus,” he said. “And of course if you don’t go to work, in this kind of arrangement … you don’t make money.”

Because John’s not employed by the companies he rides for, he’s not entitled to paid sick leave. He isn’t an Australian citizen either, and so doesn’t have access to Medicare.

In response to concerns raised by the outbreak, the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) this week called for Uber to offer workers sick leave and health cover, as well as practical basics, like hand sanitiser.

But if the Government mandates a wider shutdown of public spaces and workplaces, it’s unclear what will happen to these workers.

“There’s no telecommuting. If you do not work, you do not get paid,” said Sarah Kaine, associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School.

“All of the risk associated with their work, they hold … [gig companies] get the benefit of the work of these people, but don’t have any responsibility.”

Whose responsibility?

Peta*, who drives for Uber, said fears about the virus have already created awkward situations with customers.

Once she asked a woman who was clearly sick to sit in the backseat, rather than the front — all the time worrying that the passenger could give her a bad rating for having done so.

“Juggling my need to protect myself against the rating score I might get,” she recalled.

“It’s not just droplet spray from people coughing… we have people vomiting in our cars, incontinent in our cars.”

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said workers are anxious and haven’t been given enough guidance from gig economy companies.

In a letter, he asked Uber to launch a plan to provide workers with statutory sick leave and health cover and to suspend its rating system during the virus outbreak so workers aren’t penalised for taking steps to protect their health.

Mr Kaine said he’s also worried the lack of support for gig economy workers could become a public health risk — both for the workers, and the people with whom they interact.

“If companies don’t have the responsibility or side step … sick leave or medicals, workers will work while they’re sick, they have no option,” he said.

Deliveroo riders are concerned they will lose income if Australians are told to work from home.

(Reuters: Phil Noble)

Deliveroo riders are concerned they will lose income if Australians are told to work from home.

Gig economy work is praised for its flexibility, and the industry could see a boom as more people stay home, but UTS’ Dr Kaine said the downside becomes apparent in these circumstances.

People may just keep working, even if they feel ill. Otherwise, they have no income and no back-up.

“For those people who are engaged by the task or by the hour, the motivation to keep working, if indeed they get sick… is huge,” she said.

Under work health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of those in the workplace, which typically includes casual employees and contractors.

But it’s still unclear what specific obligations gig economy companies owe their workers during this health crisis. Safe Work Australia said it cannot comment upon testing or treatment of workers.

Who pays?

Several Uber drivers said they had not heard anything from the company so far about the outbreak, but Uber said it contacted drivers in late January with information from Australian health authorities, and more will be sent this week.

A spokesperson said the company had formed a “dedicated global team” of Uber operations, security and safety executives, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, to respond in each market.

On Tuesday evening, Deliveroo sent an email advising workers to regularly wash their Deliveroo kit and inform the company if they have tested positive for the virus, among other instructions.

A Deliveroo spokesperson also said it would be offering free hand sanitisers to all riders over the coming weeks.

Some of the instructions Deliveroo has sent to its riders over email this week.

(ABC News: Deliveroo screenshot)

Some of the instructions Deliveroo has sent to its riders over email this week.

ABC News: Deliveroo screenshot

But access to healthcare remains an issue: Many gig economy workers are in Australia on temporary visas, and typically aren’t eligible to access Medicare.

It’s also unclear what role the state and federal governments will play.

New South Wales, for example, will waive payment and debt recovery procedures for ambulance transfers of people suspected to have COVID-19 infection.

“These arrangements have been put in place to ensure payment issues are not a barrier for people from overseas with respiratory symptoms seeking early medical advice,” said Kimberley Ramplin, a spokesperson for NSW Health.

Tony Brownbill, who drives for Uber and Ola in Adelaide, said he’s concerned because a lot of his work involves driving people home from the airport — which could include travellers who have been in countries where the outbreak is more severe.

He hopes passengers won’t be taken aback and give bad ratings if drivers turn up in a mask or take other steps to protect themselves.

But most of all, he hopes the Government will look at the human impact of the outbreak.

“Issue some assurances to people that aren’t exactly flush with money,” he said.

“If you can’t go to work and you can’t get an income, that your lights will stay on, your gas will stay on, that you won’t have to pay your rent while we get through this period.”

*Names have been changed.

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