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Speech: Migrant workers and the gig economy

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 2 Dec 2020

I would like to speak tonight about the recent tragic deaths and serious injuries of food delivery workers in Sydney and across the country. We have seen a tragedy unfolding on our streets over the last few months. At least five delivery riders have been killed on the roads since the end of September. Four of those deaths were in Sydney.

The Greens have been warning for years about the precarious and dangerous nature of exploitative work in the so-called gig economy. Operating outside the ordinary rules and parameters of our industrial relations systems, companies like Uber Eats, Menulog and Deliveroo profit hugely off the back of drivers and riders, who are often paid well below minimum wage and who put up with dangerous conditions that would be completely unacceptable in other industries. Riders have to work themselves to exhaustion in order to make enough money to eat, and their pay has reportedly been cut during the pandemic. Moreover, these companies do not check basic things like: Does this person know how to ride a bike safely? Is the bike in good condition? Does it need repairs or is it roadworthy at all?

The mentality behind gig economy work forces workers to bear all responsibility and risk when it comes to their ability to get home safely at the end of the day. The company wipes its hands of it. It is disgusting and an unfathomable business model. New figures revealed by SBS over the weekend show that 65 safety incidents involving food delivery platforms have been reported to SafeWork NSW in the last 12 months. The Transport Workers Union says this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. We cannot ignore the reality that many of these delivery drivers are migrant workers and international students.

In March and April the government drew up its COVID income support measures and made a decision to exclude temporary visa holders from the coronavirus supplement and the JobKeeper wage subsidy. We put forward proposals, right here in this chamber, that would have extended income support to international students and other temporary visa holders, but sadly this did not get support from the government. This decision has forced many into dangerous work.

The Liberals' approach stood in sharp contrast to countries such as the UK, Canada and New Zealand, where visa holders were eligible for income support. The Treasurer said that, when providing the COVID safety net, the government 'had to draw a line somewhere'. The Prime Minister infamously told international students to go home. But students did not go home. The latest data from September shows that the vast majority of international students and other visa holders stayed in Australia. And they remain in Australia. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. The pandemic continues to rage on across the world. Borders have remained closed. And, perhaps most crucially, many of these people have made it home here, so where should they go and why should they go?

But they do have to make a living. When jobs evaporated earlier this year, without income support many visa holders turned to the gig economy. In its recent submission to the New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into future work, major food delivery company Deliveroo stated:

Deliveroo saw a surge in applications from people who wanted to become riders during the COVID-19 crisis. Hundreds of riders were onboarded nationally between April and mid August.

These migrant workers might be invisible to you all sitting here but they are real people who live here. They do the jobs that no-one else will. They keep the economy going. Poor industrial conditions have been rightly identified as largely responsible for the danger of food delivery work.

Laws must be overhauled at both state and federal level to provide the better pay, good conditions and protections that these workers deserve. But the brutal reality is that the federal government's decision to exclude migrant workers from COVID-19 support should also be attributed some blame. It gives me no pleasure here to label that decision racist and deadly. It's not too late to make changes. Federal income support measures should be immediately extended to all temporary visa holders. My thoughts are with the delivery riders and drivers, who continue to needlessly suffer within this industry. I extend my condolences and thoughts to the families, friends and loved ones of the drivers who have been killed.


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