Migrant employees are stuck in a 'race to the bottom' when it comes to precarious contract work

Organisations advocating for migrant workers say the federal government needs to provide more in-language information about rights in the gig economy.

Protesters rally in support of food delivery riders in Sydney.

Protesters rally in support of food delivery riders in Sydney. Source: AAP

Businesses offering sham contracts are leaving migrant staff "fighting for crumbs" at the bottom of the employment chain, an inquiry looking into Australia's gig economy has been told. 

Representatives from the Migrant Workers Centre slammed conditions for migrant workers at the Senate inquiry on Tuesday. 

In its submission to the committee, the organisation said workers were being offered independent contracts that don’t impose regular working hours while ensuring contractors are denied award rates and a minimum wage.

Annual leave, personal leave and redundancy pay are not offered either, according to the submission. Applicants with an ABN are actively sought over others, so that they can be offered the independent contracts.

“It’s a race to the bottom in contracting industries and it’s increasingly hard to find companies do the right thing by their workers,” Matt Kunkel, director of the Migrant Workers Centre, told the committee on Tuesday.

“These sorts of dodgy practices have been going on for many years.

“What we have now is a bunch of shiny apps that people are really interested in using, without seeing the real human cost.”

On Monday, the committee heard from representatives of Uber, Uber Eats, Ola and Deliveroo. In its own submission, Uber said Uber Eats delivery riders could earn $21.55 per hour in Sydney over peak mealtimes, which is more than three dollars under the minimum wage for casual workers.

Tackling the issue

The Australian Retailers Association, which represents employers in the retail sector, said flexibility would become an issue if people were forced to take employment contracts.

“The gig economy does allow people to supplement their income by taking on extra work,” Paul Zahra, CEO of the association, told the inquiry.

“We want to ensure that people can move in and out of workplaces on demand, as opposed to being tied to a contract with fixed employment or minimum hours.”

The Migrant Workers Centre recommended the federal government provide information to migrant workers about workplace rights in their language.

It said the government should facilitate follow-up education by funding trade unions and community legal centres.

Additionally, Mr Kunkel said steps should be taken to steer employers away from such contracts. 

“The employer might have dozens of these arrangements but there are no disincentives or punitive measures,” he said.

Higher education woes

Representatives from the university sector also voiced their concerns at Tuesday’s hearing, including the risk of self-censorship to stay employed. 

“If you are employed insecurely, you are more reticent to speak critically about your institution,” National Tertiary Education Union president Alison Barnes said.

“You are more reticent to disseminate controversial research findings, particularly in a context where we’ve seen university management who may be more concerned about the brand of the university, rather than what is at the absolute core of the university.”

She said the system had created a workforce that was “dependable but disposable”, meaning university workers couldn’t pay rent and were more willing to accept abuse.

“It’s not only things like academic freedom that are impacted by casualisation, it’s the capacity to report things like sexual harassment which we know is alive and well on our campuses.”

Published 13 April 2021 at 3:30pm, updated 13 April 2021 at 3:34pm
By Tys Occhiuzzi