Next stop Uber: Transport Workers Union

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Next stop Uber: Transport Workers Union

App-economy set for sectoral showdown.

The powerful Transport Worker’s Union has vowed to double down on a crucial win in the industrial courts last Friday to draw a line under abuses in the gig economy fuelled by businesses seeking to drive down costs by replacing regular staff with app-dependent workers.

“Fair warning to the IPO by Uber next year. We are coming to get you because you are stealing from working people right around the world including in this country,” TWU co-ordinator on the on-demand economy Tony Sheldon told iTnews on Friday.

“We are going to make you account.”

The latest direct warning to enterprises now harnessing cheap app-based labour confirms there will be no relent by the TWU in using Australia’s industrial courts and other legal means to enforce existing rights for contractors and employees.

It also means that mainstream businesses and corporations using or bank rolling price-driven app services will be drawn into the fray, as unions target the gig economy to harness fears over job security and conditions tapped a decade ago under the Your Rights at Work campaign.

The turbocharger for the TWU’s push is the Fair Work Commission’s bombshell decision last week that upheld the unfair dismissal claim of Foodora delivery rider Josh Klooger, who was sacked in March this year after speaking out against conditions.

Crucially, Fair Work deemed Klooger was an employee rather than a contractor, a precedent that opens the door to potential flood of claims for entitlements against app-based contracting businesses like superannuation and leave.

The Fair Work decision has sent shockwaves through Uber and other online gig clearing houses that are now exposed to substantial claims which could challenge their ongoing viability if backed in the same way the Foodora claim was run with clinical precision by the TWU.

The precedent will also reverberate across the banking sector and the boardrooms of companies across Australia which have sought to gain an equity foothold into aspiring agile technological disruptors by ploughing millions into start-ups through various venture funds.

While many API-based products and services that automate or digitise manual processes will not be primary targets for action by the likes of the TWU, price-driven labour supply aggregators – think services platforms – are now clearly in the frame.

A crucial reason many institutional, private and venture fund tech investors are nervously watching the TWU is that it provides a window into how key backers of an incoming Labor federal government will deal with technology policy in the event the Coalition loses the next federal election.

Win or lose, Sheldon has already secured backing for Senate ticket for NSW and is set to be a significant influence on how Labor’s policies surrounding technology are crafted, both at the ALP national conference in December and further down the line.

He relinquished his position as the national secretary of the in August as part of the transition into parliament. 

Sheldon’s key argument is that whether it's AI or Uber Eats, ethical guard rails must be put in place to maintain safety and prevent rapacious exploitation of sections of the community through race to the bottom on pay and conditions dressed-up as technological innovation.

“Rules have to be changed,” Sheldon told iTnews on Friday.

“There’s people that want to be contractors, but why shouldn’t a contractor have a right? If people want to be employees, why shouldn’t they have their employee entitlements?”

Asked about how investors and capital backers of tech plays should view the Foodora precedent, Sheldon responds that “any wise investor will be taking serious consideration to what they are doing.”

“This ruling shatters the foundation that the on-demand economy is built on: that it is ok to rip workers off, steal their wages, refuse them retirement contributions and deny them wages when they are forced off the job because of an injury,” Sheldon says.

“This is an example of where an employer should face jail over wage theft, since internal emails show Foodora knew what it was doing was wrong.”

Having obtained the necessary ammunition to go after globals like Uber through the Foodora workplace precedent, Sheldon isn’t pulling his punches on what’s next.

“If you want to invest in Uber, get ready to have the bills pile up,” the senator in waiting said said.

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