The PM called gig economy workers “small businesses”. Here’s why that’s wrong

contractor-rights gig economy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says gig economy workers receive less than minimum wage because they are small business owners and that’s what can happen when you run a business.

He made the comments in the explosive second leaders’ debate which aired last night on the Nine network, in what was, at times, little more than a yelling match between Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.

Albanese had asked Morrison whether all Australian workers should be paid at least the minimum wage — which is $20.33 — to which Morrison responded “it depends if they are running a business or not”.

“I mean if you are running a business, I can tell you who doesn’t get the minimum wage necessarily: small business owners when the money is not coming in,” Morrison continued.

But Albanese pressed the PM to answer the question, continuing there were “a whole lot of people out there” who are working in the gig economy at companies like Uber, Ola, AirTasker, and Snappr — estimates put the figure at over 250,000 in Australia — and many are just trying to get by, Albanese said.

Morrison replied that “they are working for themselves, that’s why they do it … They have an opportunity to do just that provided by a new economy business that is allowing them to take charge of their own life.”

The exchange crystalises “the outdated dichotomy the two sides of politics view gig workers”, Wesley Rogers, an employment lawyer at Marque Lawyers, says.

“Either as independent contractors, who are running their own business, or employees who should be entitled to all the same rights, benefits, and protections that all employees receive,” he continues.

“The problem is, gig economy and gig workers don’t neatly fall into either of these two camps. The vast majority are not small business owners and to label them as such, is disingenuous.”

Gig workers are more accurately described as independent contractors than small business owners, meaning they are often not entitled to leave benefits, insurance coverage, and unfair dismissal protection (unless their workplace writes its own conditions), often leaving workers exposed and vulnerable.

The problem, Rogers says, is our employment laws. They are woefully ill-equipped to protect gig workers in this new type of working arrangement which is really only a decade old.

By the same token, however, Australia’s notorious IR laws are equally tricky; the rules for minimum shift lengths, the absence of piece rates, and prescribed ordinary hours all don’t really fit with the flexibility and fluidity of the gig economy.

In the last few years, advocates have made strides toward a more fair and equitable standing in the labour market. The Fair Work Commission recently found Deliveroo riders to be employees, UberEats reportedly settled a dispute with a driver for $400,000 in fear of the potential outcome, and Menulog has been testing an employment model.

Still, Rogers says, the comments traded between Morrison and Albanese last night should have been more in line with the state of play.

“Strictly speaking, labelling gig workers as employees puts the gig economy at risk,” he said.

“We don’t need this type of bickering between our leaders. We need actual solutions that promote both the gig economy and its workers.”

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