Case of de ja vu as Albanese makes a strategic play

Just before midnight on Tuesday, two Uber drivers were chatting outside a 7-Eleven in Sydney’s central business district.

They were about to be interrupted by the arrival of Tony Burke, Labor’s industrial relations spokesman, who was holding a press conference at that odd hour to critique the Morrison government’s proposed workplace changes – and spruik the opposition’s plans for gig economy workers.

Many of the policies Labor leader Anthony Albanese is proposing are similar to those his predecessor Bill Shorten put to the nation in 2019.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I think it’s not about Labor or Liberal,” said one of the drivers, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardising his day job at an accounting firm. “It’s about [saying] ‘you must do something that comes up to Australian standards’.”

Uber should pay more tax, take less than its current 27.5 per cent cut of drivers’ earnings and let drivers charge more if petrol is more expensive, the driver said when asked about Labor’s plan to give workers like him quasi-employee status, with rights such as a minimum wage. In other words: he would be doing fine if the company takes its thumb off the scales. The diffuse idea of maybe becoming an employee through the intermediary of the Fair Work Commission, the industrial tribunal, as Labor suggested, was less appealing.

That is the challenge for Burke. The party must convince voters its policies will help them without being patronising and seeming to stunt their ambitions. At the last election, the opposition’s message came up short. “Labor did not craft and convey a persuasive jobs and economic growth story that augmented its mission to reduce inequality,” the party’s post-election review found.

Nonetheless, many of the policies Labor leader Anthony Albanese is proposing in the Securing Australian Jobs Plan are similar to those his predecessor Bill Shorten put to the nation in 2019. Albanese has promised to abolish the Registered Organisations Commission and Australian Building and Construction Commission, which have pursued unions for millions in court penalties for alleged and proven misconduct.

Labor has vowed that workers doing the same jobs at the same place for different employers will be paid the same, which is a mining union priority to stop labour-hire workers earning less than colleagues on union-negotiated enterprise agreements. It could play well in mining seats like Capricornia in Queensland, where coal mining is the largest single occupation, but it was not enough to sway voters away from flocking to the Coalition at the last election.

And the opposition will limit the number of fixed-term contracts workers can have before being offered a permanent position. So far, so 2019, but strategic for a Labor leader under internal pressure. All of those policies are priorities for one union or another. Promising to legislate them won't hurt Albanese's chances of retaining his leadership, though it has come at the cost of another stoush with business, which reacted with venom.

Labor’s plans would “reduce jobs and investment” said the Australian Industry Group, which grew out of manufacturing employers. It would “kill off casual employment” claimed the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a national employer umbrella group. The party should support the government’s own industrial relations overhaul, said the Business Council of Australia, representing the country’s largest firms. All that despite Albanese being careful to avoid the “big end of town” rhetoric that pervaded Labor’s last campaign, which the election review said allowed Labor “to be positioned as being anti-business”.

But Albanese’s platform also has some new elements. The Fair Work Commission will be given the power to give employee-like rights, such as the minimum wage to gig economy workers in the wake of the deaths of five delivery riders in three months last year. Those workers have much more flexibility than employees in their shift times and which companies they work for, but they generally do not get a minimum wage, workers compensation if they are injured or unfair dismissal protection.

Yet many of the sector’s workers are migrants, here on visas, who cannot vote. So how will Labor’s plan win the seats it needs to claim the election? Burke, speaking to the Herald and The Age after his midnight press conference, said the answer was in the growth of the gig economy.

No longer is it constrained to businesses like Uber that popularised it. Big companies delivering services to people with disabilities through the National Disability Insurance Scheme now use a gig-economy model, as does Airtasker, a platform for almost any service from copywriting to moving house, and the newly arrived Amazon for some of its product deliveries.

“Once you realise that it has gone into the care economy you see the gig economy is much deeper than what’s visible,” Burke says. “When I started in the portfolio, my whole sense of the gig economy was the apps I had on my phone and the drivers and riders I saw on the street and the complaints from taxi drivers… but there is a layer of this that effectively turns getting a shift into a tendering process.

Tony Burke was environment minister when he charged taxpayers for the travel.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Once you do that, every minimum standard we have in the economy is up for grabs.”

It is not clear exactly how many workers are in the gig economy. The best data on the sector is from a 2020 Victorian government inquiry that surveyed 14,000 people and found 13 per cent of them had done platform work at some point and 7 per cent in the last year. They are widespread too. Uber, for example, has moved into regional centres in seats Labor is targeting such as Townsville in the electorate of Herbert and Gladstone in Flynn.

Attorney-General Christian Porter plays a dead bat on the issue, correctly pointing out states have primary responsibility for work health and safety and saying it is open to debate whether gig workers should have the minimum wage.

“Well, I mean, these are very complicated questions which need consideration, economic modelling,” Porter says. “We need to understand what the costs would be to business, to the contractors, to the consumer, whether or not businesses would survive any increase in wages.”

But the industry is not wholly against Labor’s plans. The tribunal idea received a frosty response, with Uber and Deliveroo arguing that their workers are independent and prefer it that way.

However, Uber Australia’s general manager, Dom Taylor, says Labor’s proposal to let workers accrue sick, annual and long service leave across multiple jobs, including some that do not have leave at all yet, was worth pursuing.

“We want to help improve the quality of independent work, and we agree that portable entitlements could help achieve this by helping people accrue benefits from a number of different income sources,” Taylor says. In the US, Uber has proposed a similar model, with riders and drivers building up a kitty of cash ride-by-ride that can be used for things like medical insurance and paid time off.

Those remarks proposing a middle ground could be electoral manna for Labor because when California went further, proposing to essentially deem many gig economy workers employees, the industry reacted with a campaign that spent about $US200 million ($258 million) to reverse the laws. It is a campaign Labor here could do without.

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