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With Uber, Deliveroo and the gig economy on the rise, must labour unions die?

The ABC’s Antony Funnell reports (31.5.17) on the steady rise of the so-called ‘gig’ or digital economy, and what an increasingly casualised and contracted workforce means for labour union representation. The article features input from TJ Ryan Foundation Board member, John Quiggin.

‘About a year ago in the United Kingdom, courier drivers for the billion-dollar food delivery service Deliveroo began protesting changes to payment rates. And it soon became a dispute over definition and status, as much as pay.

‘Exactly what it means to be an “employee” has been the subject of heated debate before a British arbitration committee. And the result could have implications for both the global gig economy and the future of worker representation.

‘Deliveroo, like other gig economy firms, classifies its workers as independent contractors, rather than employees. The distinction is not just semantic. It’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, because as independent contractors, gig workers have no right to traditional entitlements such as holiday pay and sick leave.

‘… The established union movement has problems of its own. It’s struggling, despite conditions that should suit a growth in members: rising inequality, stagnant or falling wages and a dramatic decline in full-time employment. Ninety per cent of all jobs created in Australia in the 12 months to June 2016 were part-time.

‘Nowhere is the decline of unions more obvious than in Australia, which is now one of the least unionised countries in the developed world. Union membership is just 15 per cent — 10 points under the average for OECD countries. And among the young — those most affected by the rise of the gig economy — only 6 per cent of workers are union members.

‘”What we’ve seen has been 30 or 40 years in which almost every piece of legislation affecting the labour force has been calculated to reduce the influence of unions, to make unions’ life more difficult,” John Quiggin, an ARC Laureate Fellow in economics at the University of Queensland, says.

‘And while the union movement has historic links to the Labor Party they too, have conspired in the movement’s decline, Professor Quiggin says.’

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