Interview - Radio National with Patricia Karvelas
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Many of us use rideshare and food delivery services. They’re cheap and convenient but that can come at a cost to the worker. Gig economy workers are categorised as contractors, meaning they don’t get sick leave, they don’t get superannuation, they don’t get the minimum wage. But the federal government plans to change that. It comes after the largest gig economy player, Uber, announced an agreement with the Transport Workers Union to set minimum standards for drivers and delivery riders.
DOM TAYLOR: The way that we’re going to do that is by retaining the flexibility that drivers and delivery partners tell us that they love. But we can also overlay benefits and protections which would more traditionally be applied to employment-like contracts.
[End of excerpt]
KARVELAS: That’s General Manager of Uber, Dom Taylor, speaking to us yesterday. Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations, and the Arts, and the Leader of the House, and my guest. Minister, welcome.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Happy 90th birthday.
KARVELAS: Oh, thank you. I can say that we have been overwhelmed by text messages this morning of people saying happy 90th and lovely things, so it is quite something.
BURKE: It’s a good day.
KARVELAS: Now, you’re planning to legislate to give the Fair Work Commission the power to set minimum conditions for gig economy workers. What are the basic entitlements you believe they should have access to?
BURKE: Well, the challenge we have at the moment is what the Fair Work Commission does is they decide whether you’re an employee or not. If you’re an employee, you get a whole lot of rights. If it’s decided that you’re not an employee, all those rights fall off a cliff. What we want to do is to effectively turn that cliff into a ramp where there are some people who are genuinely running their own small businesses and you don’t want to capture them. But there are other people, and the riders that you refer to are a classic example, where they have so many attributes that are like employees. So what sort of things do you want? You want them to be able to get superannuation. You want them to be able to have worker’s compensation. You want them to be able to have different forms of sick leave. And you want them, importantly, to be able to have minimum rates.
Now, one of the huge challenges here is, you know, you’ll remember the stories not that long ago where in a short space of time we had six deaths on the road from people working as food delivery riders. Now, there is a direct line between the risks people were taking on the road and the pressures that they were under for the algorithms that effectively are their employers. I've had riders tell me about, in order to make ends meet and to make sure that they got the next order, because the faster you were, the more likely you were to get the next order, the way the algorithm worked. That would mean that they'd run red lights. It would mean that they'd form an extra lane of traffic between the official traffic lanes, knowing at any point there was a risk that someone in a parked car would open a car door, and instead of riding between the traffic, you'd be lying beside it or under it. So there's a safety issue here as well as the minimum entitlements issue.
KARVELAS: Uber is the market leader in the gig economy with over 100,000 drivers and delivery people essentially on their books. How significant is the agreement it's come to with the Transport Workers' Union? Is it a turning point?
BURKE: Oh, I was so happy yesterday when I was hearing the interview that you did with Uber and with Michael Kaine from the Transport Workers' Union. This is a very big shift. It's not that long ago that we were being told by- not only by the platform providers, but also by the former government that all of this was too complicated to be able to deal with. To now see the biggest player there in an agreement with the unions saying we need to now have an independent system to set some minimum standards is a huge change. I've made clear I've never had a problem with the technology itself. I use the technology, but I don't think 21st century technology should come with 19th century working conditions. So to be able to set some minimum standards isn’t just good for the workers, it’s also good for the platforms. You know, if Uber on their own, for example, were to set higher standards, the nature of this market would mean another algorithm could turn up and just undercut them and we wouldn’t have achieved anything. So to have the Fair Work Commission with the power to set minimum standards- you know, the lists that I went before- went through before are the sorts of things I’d like to see, but ultimately it would be the Commission that made the decision as to what was in and what was out. That will make a difference for the whole industry.
KARVELAS: Many gig economy workers take jobs on multiple apps. What are the challenges in determining how those different apps share responsibility for that workers’ entitlements?
BURKE: Yeah, that’s one of the things that we’ll need to work through with industry and with the union as well. So some of the delivery platforms, for example, have mentioned to me the concept of this might be one of the areas where a portable entitlement’s appropriate because, you know, if you’re working across multiple platforms then if there is to be a fund that would cover you, you know, when you needed sick leave for example, then that should be shared across the different apps, so into a central fund that the worker can then draw on. Those sorts of concepts are things that can be worked through but the first stage, and the big shift, has really been these agreements that the Transport Workers’ Union’s been driving.
I should add, if I can, because a lot of the listeners won’t be aware of just how big the gig economy now is. It’s not only the apps that people might have on their phone. A whole lot now of the care economy is delivered through the gig economy. So, many people on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example, who are working there are in fact working where their employer effectively is an algorithm. Many people in the security industry are effectively working in the gig economy now, and increasingly in hospitality as well. So this is an area where if we just continue to let it rip without minimum standards, a whole lot of the rules that we’ve presumed were part of working in Australia will fall away and we can’t leave it any longer before we have a process to set minimum standards here.
KARVELAS: Now, I’ve previously asked you this with your hat as the Shadow Minister. You now have the power so your answer will be really interesting. Do you expect that inevitably those costs will be passed onto the consumer and that consumers will pay higher prices?
BURKE: I think that you'll get some small increases in prices in different places. You know, it may mean that there's a marginal increase in getting a pizza delivered to your home or something like that. And I've- I was upfront in that in Opposition, I'm upfront on that in government as well that you know where- we are not a nation where we've worked on the basis that you should need tips before you can make ends meet. We've always worked on the basis that there should be minimum wages. We have a section of the economy at the moment where there's effectively no minimum and that can't go on.
KARVELAS: When do you want this new system in place by?
BURKE: I want to get the consultation right. So I'd love to be in a situation where I'm introducing the legislation on it this year and I need to work through whether we would, you know, deal with the whole gig economy at once or whether we would work through sections of the economy one at a time. So there's a big piece of consultation that hasn't yet started. But I've spoken with- I've started the conversations with the Department about how we might put that together. So it's a big step. You know, for the whole history of Australia, we've basically had this clear line, if you're an employee you get rights. If you're not an employee, you don't. But technology's now got in front of us, so we need to take the step. It is a big step and I want to make sure that we get the consultation right. That'll mean talking to the different platforms and also to the range of unions that represent workers across those platforms.
KARVELAS: Just staying with industrial relations, thousands of teachers from public schools and Catholic schools are striking in New South Wales today and parts of the ACT. The Daily Telegraph has labelled the teachers greedy for asking for $4 billion in extra education funding. Are striking teachers greedy?
BURKE: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. I won't pretend to be well across that particular dispute because it's a state one. But, you know, what the experience for people working in the state system has been a direct consequence of what's happened at a federal level for ten years, which is when low wages are a deliberate design feature of the previous government's management of the economy, people reach a point where they say, we haven't been- we don't feel we've been moving forward for a decade.
Now, that causes the levels of frustration where people were told you couldn't have a wage increase because interest rates were low. You now get told you can't have a wage increase from some because inflation is high. And we were also told, well, you couldn't have inflation- you would automatically get wage increases once unemployment got really low. Well, it is, and excuses are still being found to not provide pay increases. So I can absolutely…
KARVELAS: So do you support the claim?
BURKE: I won't pretend to be well across it, but as a general principle in terms of workers wanting to be able to get wages moving, absolutely. And as I said on this program, I think only a week ago, even for the comments that were made by the Reserve Bank Governor about an anchor point of 3.5 per cent, that's still a significant increase from where wages are right now.
KARVELAS: Just on some other big news this morning, I know it's not in your portfolio, but just- it's really significant. The Australian Energy Market operator has released its integrated system plan, a 30-year roadmap for the nation's electricity grid. It says we need a ninefold increase in wind and solar capacity, triple the firming capacity, and a near fivefold increase in distributed solar by 2050. Can we do it?
BURKE: On that part- that specific question I'd have to refer to Chris Bowen. But on the principle itself, what we're looking at here is a direct consequence of what happens when we have the climate wars stopping policy from developing for ten years. The fact that we needed to get transmission moving is not something that was announced today. It was something that Anthony Albanese referred to as Leader of the Opposition in his first Budget reply speech some three years ago. And at that point AEMO had been calling for it for some time. The previous government had deliberately not acted to be able to provide what would give Australians, not just cleaner energy, but also cheaper and more reliable energy. We have a situation now, and I've got areas of my portfolio as well that we were talking about before, where inaction- the longer you leave it, you end up with these crisis points where work needs to be done urgently. Now, how quickly we can respond to that is something Chris Bowen’s the person to talk on. But the fact that this is urgent is a direct consequence of the neglect we saw for ten years.
KARVELAS: On Monday, some 800,000 people on welfare will transfer to this new points-based system called Workforce Australia. There's been obviously criticisms. We've talked about it before. Are you prepared to listen to calls from organisations like Anglicare for a 90-day freeze on welfare infringements to avoid people having their payments reduced or cancelled?
BURKE: What I've done is I've given people a clean slate. So in terms of the penalties that can come in after people have been, you know, failing to meet various requirements, that effectively puts that off in a similar way to the 90-day principle. What I don't want to do is- if I explain it in these terms: there are a higher proportion now of long term unemployed within the caseload than there have been previously. And that's partly a consequence of the strong employment market that we have at the moment. Now, when you have- these are individuals where the 20 applications a week clearly hasn't worked for them. If they want to keep doing the- sorry, 20 applications a month clearly hasn't worked for them. If they want to keep doing the 20 applications a month as a way of keeping their responsibilities, nothing will change there. So for anyone who's worried about the change of rules, if you keep doing what you've been doing, then you'll still qualify. But what I want to make sure of is that people don't disengage with the system, and I'm worried about the 90-day announcement that's been requested of me.
There are some people who we really need to engage closely with where the new system, particularly the changes I've made to it, encourage and give people credit where they didn't used to get credit for doing different courses and activities that get them job ready. I'm worried about saying you completely don't have to engage for 90 days, that we wouldn't be doing people a favour with that. So we've avoided the penalties by giving everybody complete clean slate, new system. And I'm pleased we made that decision. I think that's a better way to deal with the challenges of a new system than the proposal you referred to.
KARVELAS: You're meeting with crossbenchers to discuss changes to the Standing Orders in Question Time. Do you think they should get more staff rather than just this one parliamentary staff member? Do you think it's worth negotiating to give them more than that?
BURKE: If I can say a couple of things about the staffing matter. First of all, they haven't gone from four to one, they've gone from eight to five. That's the first thing. Secondly...
KARVELAS: Sure, but we're talking just about the- I want to be clear, because a lot of my listeners say, hang on a minute, are we talking about the parliamentary extra allocation, not the electorate staff, right? So, that’s what I’m referring to.
BURKE: Oh no- yeah, but here's complete crossover. Like if you went into the parliamentary offices of pretty much any of the shadow ministers during the last term of government, we had to use our electorate staff to carry the parliamentary load as well. If you looked at not just the front desk of my office, the front desk of Anthony Albanese's office as well, people from the electorate staff were there carrying the parliamentary load. The fact that crossbenchers may have been in a position where they didn't have to do that, they would’ve been amongst the only members of Parliament who didn't have to do that. That's really standard. But can I also say in this conversation, there's been a complete underestimating of the work that government and Opposition backbenchers do. I mean I've heard, and I heard it again on this program, an interview that was on earlier today – I think it was Rex Patrick, I wasn't sure – I hadn't heard the beginning of the interview.
KARVELAS: It was.
BURKE: It was? Okay. This presumption that only crossbenchers have to be across each piece of legislation as though the ministers and shadow ministers make decisions and the rest of caucus just rubber stamps it, completely undervalues what backbenchers do. They’re involved in the caucus committees…
KARVELAS: Okay, I- let’s accept that. They're very involved. But still, crossbenchers have a particular pressure on them, you've got to describe it as, because of their key role. Why not give them more resources given they're desperate for it, and there was such an overwhelming victory for Independents at the election?
BURKE: Well, having an additional member of staff – and some of the ones with larger electorates have been provided with two – having additional members of staff is an acknowledgement of exactly that. But the concept where the argument has been put for four has carried with it a presumption that is simply not true and devalues the work of government and Opposition backbenchers. They do have a responsibility being across other pieces of legislation, and I've been to caucus meetings where there's been a proposal by a minister or a shadow minister that is turned because of the views of backbenchers in the caucus meeting. I've seen it in caucus committees, I've seen it at caucus meetings. And, you know, how does that happen? Because the work that is currently being presumed that only crossbenchers do is in fact done by government and Opposition backbenchers as well without any additional staff.
KARVELAS: We're out of time. Thanks for coming on, Minister.
BURKE: Always good to talk.
KARVELAS: Tony Burke, Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and the Arts, and the Leader of the House.