By Sharon Bradley
Apps such as Uber disrupted the way we work long before COVID-19 came along. Now, the pandemic is set to shake things up even more.
A LOUCHE, ’70s glamour attaches to the word “hustle”. It conjures an easy charm, jangling pockets, and a nimble-footed way of being in the world, impelled by native wit and confidence. Its origins, though, lie in the 17th-century Dutch verb husselen, meaning “to shake or toss”. If the hustle was all about disruption – an agitation of the status quo to achieve a more favourable set of circumstances – then its modern-day equivalent, with all the implications it has for the conventional labour market, is surely the app-enabled gig economy. (The gig economy, or sharing economy, as it’s sometimes called, enables independent contractors to undertake a variety of piecework tasks that are mediated by a digital platform. Uber is the most obvious example.)
Depending on whom you consult, the gig economy is either unlikely to catch on as a single stream of income as long as the work that it enables is, mostly, menial, low-paid and insecure (source: the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute think tank), or, conversely, expanding at such a rate that, by 2025, 40 per cent of the global workforce will comprise contingent workers attracted to its flexibility and diversity (as forecast by global research firm Gartner).
Paula McDonald, professor of work and organisation at Queensland University of Technology, who recently steered Australia’s first study into the prevalence of digital platform work, has unearthed surprisingly modest figures. While 13 per cent of a representative sample of internet users have, at some point, dabbled in gig work, only 7 per cent are current giggers or have been in the past 12 months – a gap that suggests “a fair amount of turnover”, McDonald says.
Participation, she says, decreases with age: 11 per cent of 18-34-year-olds had worked through digital platforms in the past year. In contrast, eight per cent of 35-39-year-olds and four per cent of those in the 50-64 age group had participated. The most senior cohort – 65-74-year-olds – comprises only one per cent.
“Gig workers are disproportionately younger and male, while temporary residents are more likely than Australian citizens to participate,” McDonald says. Gig workers use more than 100 platforms, she says, the five most popular being Airtasker, Uber, Freelancer, Uber Eats and Deliveroo.
More than 1 million workers in Australia are classed not as employees, but as independent contractors. Sixty-one-year-old Jo Webber, who lives in Braidwood, NSW, is one of them. Disruption, she says, was her unlikely ally in the months following the death of her husband, Ian, on Boxing Day, 2016. At the time, she was employed as an associate editor at a prominent media company in Sydney and lived in the city’s bustling inner west. But, newly bereaved, she started to feel like the city was the worst kind of treadmill.
“Costs had always been going up, but my salary hadn’t,” she says. “And then there were so many places that reminded me of happier times. It just became harder and harder to think of Sydney as being a fun and fabulous place to live. Without Ian, it wasn’t. It was a financial struggle.”
It was Webber’s sister, a long-time resident of Braidwood, who suggested a relocation to this small, National Trust-classified town as a possible salve. When the 19th-century post office cottage next door to her became available to rent, the possibility slowly started to gain momentum.
“The cottage just seemed to receive me,” says Webber, who completed her tree change in the spring of 2017. Two-and-a-half years later, she’s a freelance writer and content creator for a variety of publications and websites, takes care of two clients’ public relations, and spends two days a week, sometimes more, as a kitchen hand in a local cafe.
“There’s oodles of flexibility and autonomy, which I love,” Webber says. “I can fit my job around my life rather than the other way around, but the juiciest part is the variety of tasks I get to do in a week. One day I’m writing a finance feature for a superannuation website; the next I’m making six carrot cakes in a busy kitchen. And I’m upskilling as I go.”
The downside? “Insecurity, without a doubt,” she says. “After having been salaried for almost all of my working life, the absence of employee benefits – annual leave, sick pay, automatic tax deductions and super contributions – well, freelancers don’t have any of that.” But self-agency, she says, is key, and for now, at least, the positives far outweigh the disadvantages. “And during the pandemic,” she says, “I felt so much safer here than I ever would have done in the city.”
Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer, from the Sydney Business Insights podcast, say COVID-19 exposed two very different species of gig worker: on the one hand, drivers who work for the likes of Uber and Lyft, whose average earnings dropped by as much as 80 per cent, and on the other, those who work for companies such as Amazon, Instacart and Deliveroo, who, almost overnight, were reclassified as essential workers. Could this new-found appreciation of their value, on the part of service providers and customers alike, put them in a stronger bargaining position in terms of securing at least some of the protections enjoyed by conventional nine-to-five workers? The most pressing of these is compulsory super contributions. Increasingly, there are calls for this to be extended to all workers, including gig workers. “The whole idea was that we needed a universal system,” Tim Kennedy, national secretary of the National Union of Workers, told Four Corners in 2018. “And it’s not universal right now. Millions of workers are falling between the cracks of the superannuation system in this country. If you are a worker, you should be paid super. Full stop.”
Tim Steele, Group Executive of retirement and investment solutions at MLC, offers contingent workers the following advice: “First: consider consolidating your super accounts. Multiple sets of fees across multiple accounts is only going to eat into your savings. Second: if you can, even in tough times like this, adopt the discipline of still making regular contributions – whatever you can afford – to your chosen super fund. It’s the easiest and most obvious way to make sure you’re prepared for retirement. Third: develop financial fitness in order to increase your capacity to contribute to your super. Get on top of your cash flow, resist the temptation to spend, and become a saver. Allocate your money to different ‘buckets’: one for emergencies, one for short-term goals, such as a new bike or a second-hand car, and one for longer-term goals, such as your retirement.”
With new surges of the virus making headlines, working from home – which has been the good-news story of 2020 – looks set to continue for a while longer. For Webber, who’s been able to create a home office in her cottage, it has been an undisputed highlight of her new life and one that she believes sets her up to make healthier choices throughout the day. Without the grind of daily commutes and late-night deadlines, life feels easier, breezier and just kinder somehow, she says. She has time to eat well, exercise out in the open, meditate and enjoy impromptu drop-ins from friends.
Is working from home likely to become a permanent addition to the labour landscape? McDonald says: “I don’t see many organisations allowing or requiring or even desiring that their workers continue to work from home permanently. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see a hybrid arrangement [fewer days in the office, more days at home] taking hold, alongside an increasing level of trust [on the part of employers].”
But McDonald also sounds a warning: “We might also see an increase in the use of algorithmic management, where employers track their employees’ whereabouts and performance in real time using sophisticated technological monitoring tools. It sounds sinister but, if you think about a call centre, that’s exactly what’s been happening for the last 20 years.”
The Centre for Future Work characterises this kind of surveillance as being “more stick, less carrot”. It not only offends the dignity and privacy of workers, the centre says, but has been responsible for a deceleration of wage growth in Australia’s overall labour market in recent years as bosses have shown themselves to be less concerned with motivating and retaining employees on the basis of positive incentives. The wellbeing of gig workers, who can be summarily dismissed on the basis of a bad customer review (even though research demonstrates that consumer ratings often reflect consumer bias), is increasingly at stake.
With the post-COVID-19 era likely to be a period of sustained economic anxiety for businesses and their workforces, some predict organisations will replace full-time employees with contingent workers in a bid to save money. McDonald highlights the need for a high level of cooperation between unions, employers and government if this is to happen. “There’s a risk that the pandemic could be used to bake in wage cuts and poor terms and conditions should this become the staffing option of choice,” she says. “We can’t be complacent.”
In the meantime, a half year of almost biblical adversity has cemented Webber’s sense of belonging in Braidwood. “It’s true that I’m often taking deep breaths and reminding myself to just trust life,” she says, “but the bushfires and the pandemic actually showed me my community here and it’s strong, tight-knit and kind. I was just testing the waters before. Now I’m certain that this is where I want to be.”
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