Is Airtasker leading the way in gig labour standards?
The peer-to-peer jobs platform has pioneered a union agreement
When Unions NSW published a report accusing online job site Airtasker of circumventing minimum wage rates and removing employee safety nets, the reaction from Airtasker co-founder and CEO Tim Fung was swift.
While he didn’t agree with all the criticism of his ‘gig economy’ website, Fung contacted the union organisation to work with them on an agreement to set minimum employment standards for the site.
“Our view with Airtasker is that in order to be a sustainable marketplace business, almost by definition, a marketplace needs to work with the various stakeholders in order to create an ecosystem where everyone’s aligned on the same goals and outcomes,” Fung says, explaining why he decided to work with the union.
The result was a landmark agreement between Airtasker and Unions NSW. The agreement means that Airtasker no longer posts any recommended pay rates below the National Minimum Wage, and when users post a job they are notified of minimum award rates for each of 10 key categories of work.
While the agreement does not mandate pay rates, Airtasker says it has resulted in the hourly rates of pay for some tasks rising by up to 75%.
The agreement also incorporates safety guidelines for both workers and job posters, though like the wages rates, they are not mandatory.
There is also a dispute resolution procedure, and Unions NSW and Airtasker are working together to develop an optional insurance policy to cover workers for personal injury.
‘They are quirky individually. But, when you look at it in aggregate, it’s creating an economy’TIM FUNG
Contractors or employees
Unions have traditionally represented workers with ongoing work from a clearly defined employer and have only recently started advocating for gig economy workers.
“From the Airtasker perspective, it’s an interesting model around how you would get workers to join a union there,” says Kate Minter, a research officer at Unions NSW.
“I think it’s something unions are still working through around what membership looks like, particularly for a growing group of workers who are working on an online platform.”
Minter has written a case study of the agreement, Negotiating labour standards in the gig economy: Airtasker and Unions NSW, which appears in the latest Economic and Labour Relations Review, published by the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW Business School.
The term gig economy was first widely used during the global financial crisis, when many workers lost permanent full-time jobs and had to turn “increasingly to sporadic, casual and freelance work, or ‘gigs’, to support themselves in the absence of better alternatives”, says Minter.
With more than 1.2 million users and about $75 million in paid tasks in 2016, Airtasker is the largest of several Australian sites that enable the gig economy by linking up people who need specific tasks done with those prepared to do them for a fee.
Minter argues that the issue is whether those people who provide services via job sites are contractors or employees.
“Digital platforms [have] full control over each worker’s access to the platform and, in many cases, in determining rates and payments unilaterally,” she says.
“Given such a level of control is maintained by platform businesses, the critical question is whether they can be described accurately as simply mediating between so-called independent contractors and service consumers, or whether they hold a greater responsibility as labour brokers or even employers.”
It’s an important distinction, because employees have legally enforceable minimum wages and working standards. However, the activity of independent contractors is governed by commercial rather than employment law, bypassing the normal requirements for workers.
‘It could actually be quite positive for a lot of workers to find different means of accessing work’KATE MINTER
Significant and hopeful
Anne Junor, an associate professor and deputy director of the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW Business School, describes the agreement between Airtasker and Unions NSW as very significant and hopeful.
“It shows for the first time – to my knowledge, in Australia – that the organised union movement has the capacity to work on behalf of, or to negotiate on behalf of, people who are either non-employees or whose employment status is ambiguous,” she says.
Junor believes Airtasker is more than just a platform. She notes that it needs to safeguard its brand – and to protect its name it acts like an employer in screening workers. It controls aspects of their speech and behaviour – they cannot publish criticisms or sub-contract tasks – and it has quasi-firing powers, in that it can bar workers from future jobs, thereby creating a type of dependence.
And the fact that it provides some mediation services and is working on insurance protection, while in itself a good thing, is also evidence that it accepts some of the responsibilities of an employer, Junor says.
But Fung has no doubt that people who find work via Airtasker are independent contractors.
“[It’s clear] when you look at what Airtasker is doing – which is not defining the price of work; not defining the scope of the work; and not controlling how the job is done, [nor] providing the tools, uniforms, or any of those things,” he says.
And rather than substituting gigs for permanent roles, Fung says Airtasker is creating new work.
“That’s evident when you look at some of the tasks on our platform – whether it’s moving a spider from a ceiling fan, or whether it’s lining up for an iPhone, or whether it’s writing a poem for someone’s wedding anniversary,” he notes.
“They are quirky individually. But, when you look at it in aggregate, it’s creating an economy.”
Minter was surprised Airtasker came to the negotiating table. She says the union movement doesn’t object to gig work in itself, as long as more protections for workers are put in place and if it isn’t used to undermine rates of pay – for the gig workers, and across the economy.
“It could actually be quite positive for a lot of workers to find different means of accessing work,” she says.
“But there is a broader risk issue around how much we dissect work into small gigs and it makes it harder for people to kind of piece those together into a wage that will support them.”
Minter says despite the “basic” protections offered in the Airtasker agreement, more needs to be done in the digital platform space.
In the short-term this will involve formal agreements with other gig economy companies, similar to that with Airtasker, but in the longer-term, a legislative solution will be required.
“Initiatives like the Airtasker-Unions NSW agreement cannot single-handedly eliminate the risks of exploitation and the downward bidding of labour standards in platform businesses. The recommended minimum rates of pay included in the agreement now match or exceed minimum award rates; however, they are still not compulsory and cannot be enforced,” she writes.
“Despite these protections, workers at Airtasker (and other digital platforms) ultimately need the introduction of truly enforceable labour standards, including mandatory minimum rates of pay and universal access to the Fair Work Commission for the resolution of disputes.”