Their yellow delivery bags are an increasingly common sight around Australia’s streets, but a company dubbed the “Chinese UberEATS” is facing the same exploitation allegations as online food courier giants.
Kiet came to Australia to study English, but is just as likely to be seen dashing from one of the bustling restaurants in Sydney’s Chinatown to another delivery.
Working as a food courier is a flexible job for the Malaysian student, but it could hardly be described as rewarding: long wait times between deliveries with a base pay he says starts at $6 per order means a full day’s work can net him less than $150 - below minimum wage.
“Sometimes I have to wait for one or two hours,” he tells SBS News, adding that at other times he was forced to take dangerous risks riding his bike on busy roads.
“I don’t have any insurance. So if something happens, I can’t make a claim. This job is really dangerous.”
I don’t have any insurance. So if something happens, I can’t make a claim.
- Kiet, food courier
Kiet delivers orders made through Sydney Delivery, one of the five city-based food delivery apps for businesses operating under the umbrella company Australian Delivery United Group, which is also known as EASI.
Boasting 200,000 app downloads, EASI motorised bike riders in their distinctive yellow uniforms - dubbed the “Chinese UberEATS” in online forums - are an increasingly common sight in Australian inner cities alongside bigger players UberEATS and Deliveroo.
But critics of the gig economy say the controversial practices of online food delivery giants - which have drawn worker protests, media attention and lawsuits - are being used by smaller or niche operators that are still slipping “below the radar”.
“Because of the size of some of the smaller operators, they are getting away with the same sort of exploitation, but unlike the larger ones they aren’t getting found out,” said Transport Workers Union (TWU) national secretary Tony Sheldon.
They are getting away with the same sort of exploitation, but unlike the larger ones they aren’t getting found out.
- Tony Sheldon, TWU
Riders for food delivery platforms are typically engaged as independent contractors, a practice that has come under scrutiny and criticism as it means they are not given employee entitlements such as award wages, superannuation and workers’ compensation.
In June, the Fair Work Ombudsman launched legal action against Berlin-based Foodora, accusing the company of sham contracting resulting in the underpayment of workers.
The ACCC has separately launched an investigation into UberEATS’ conduct and contract terms.
The ombudsman this month abandoned its case against Foodora after the company went into voluntary administration.
Despite Foodora’s decision to withdraw from the Australian market, the TWU is still separately pursuing Foodora over unfair dismissal of a worker sacked in March.
“Foodora, who is leaving the country because they are being held to account, carried out wage theft in this country and owes substantial sums of tax to our government,” Mr Sheldon said.
“Now smaller but quite significant companies operating in our major cities” are carrying out the similar practices, he said.
Chinese working holidaymaker Lee is a courier for both UberEATS and EASI’s Victorian app Melbourne Delivery in order to make more money.
Working full time can net her up to $800 a week - an amount barely above minimum wage, and often below it.
Her earnings from her first 24 orders goes towards covering the weekly rent for a Melbourne Delivery motorised bike, a $180 fee she described as “too expensive”.
But “comparing with Chinese restaurants, the pay is not too bad,” she tells SBS News.
Lee, who collects her earnings directly from Melbourne Delivery customers in cash and UberEATS via bank transfer, admits to having no idea about her tax obligations.
Lee said her main concern is about road safety. Unlike UberEATS, Melbourne Delivery offers no insurance for riders.
“Sometimes I’m almost hit by a car,” she said. “This happens quite often, because Australians drive very quickly.
Sometimes I’m almost hit by a car.
- Lee, food courier
She said she would like to see the companies do more to address safety, describing another incident where she got trapped in an apartment stairwell with no mobile reception and so no way of calling for help.
In a statement, the Australian Delivery United Group rejected any suggested mistreatment of workers, saying riders were sub-contractors rather than employees, and were therefore responsible for their own tax obligations and insurance.
As riders were free to work their own hours and across a range of companies, “their earning capacity is not limited to just providing their service to us and directly relevant to the number of hours they work”.
The spokesman said the company was unaware of the costs of bike rental - which was optional - as this was handled by its contractor.
“The contractor has strict company policies and training (both in class and on-road) for the sub-contractors before engaging them for performing services for our company,” it said.
UberEATS said all riders were provided with safety information when they sign up, and there were plans to expand the way this was presented within the app.
"Flexible working opportunities that you can tailor round your life have been traditionally hard to find, and what our partners tell us is that the flexibility the Uber app offers - you can log on and off whenever you want - is what makes a difference to them,” she said.
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