Food delivery services are now incredibly popular in Australia. UberEats, Deliveroo, Foodora and others are now household names. But behind the convenience lies the super exploitation of delivery workers, many of who are international students.
Food delivery jobs with these companies are all part of the “gig economy”, which means the work is all temporary and insecure. Workers pick up a bit here, and a bit there, and the work is all very low paid. It is the modern equivalent of piecework.
This food delivery industry is extremely lucrative, estimated at $16.4 billion, and expanding. A recent study found that almost half of all Australians had ordered food online, and most plan to do it again. The main food delivery companies are extremely profitable but those who risk life and limb to get the food to us while still hot see very little of the wealth produced.
A big proportion of food delivery workers in Australia are international students. These people are already vulnerable, being treated as cash cows by the universities and also by unscrupulous landlords.
International students have a restriction on their visa that only allows them to work for 20 hours a week when school is in session. This restriction is supposed to help students concentrate on their studies but in reality, it does the opposite. The 20-hour rule is a major source of stress for almost all international students.
With high costs of living, most international students need to work while also studying. Employers however are keen to take advantage of international students as they perceive them as vulnerable. Many offer jobs that pay less than the minimum wage which then compels the student to work more than 20 hours a week in order to make ends meet.
The 7-Eleven case that hit the headlines early last year, but was exposed by Socialist Party activists in 2008, was perhaps the most high-profile example of this dodgy practice. 7-Eleven store operators threatened workers with deportation if they complained about their treatment.
Understandably, many international students are keen to avoid the risk of being trapped in a job with an employer who both underpays you and threatens you with deportation. It is this concern that the major food delivery services are taking advantage of. Online forums openly talk about food delivery jobs being the best means to get around the 20-hour rule.
While many food delivery workers work longer than 20 hours a week, they are only paid for the deliveries themselves. The extra time spent waiting for jobs are recorded on the apps that they use but they are not paid for these hours.
To give an example, UberEats drivers get a minimum fee of about $11 per delivery. From that Uber takes a 35% cut, and the worker has to pay for all of their own bike/scooter/car costs. Some workers have reported being left with as little as $8 per hour after all expenses are paid!
Rather than being directly employed by the delivery company, the delivery workers are classified as “independent contractors”. In a nut shell this means that they have none of the rights of regular employees.
Independent contractors do not have the right to a minimum wage, sick leave or penalty rates for working anti-social hours. Not having to pay for these basic minimum conditions is the reason that the major food delivery companies are so profitable.
Another important issue is that of job security. While these workers spend many hours working for free for the company they do not have any security of tenure. In fact, they can be kicked off the app without any notice. Companies like Uber and Deliveroo have been known to terminate workers for engaging in protest activity.
While it is no doubt challenging to organise these workers, there have been examples of people pushing back against the greed of the delivery service giants. Deliveroo drivers in Britain used a crowd-funding site to help raise money for a strike fund and online forums have been used to organise.
These experiences need to be absorbed in Australia but in addition to finding ways to pressure the companies, there needs to be a push to abolish the discriminatory 20-hour rule. It is being used to hold international students over a barrel and exploit them, and it forces people to take jobs that pay below the minimum wage.
The union movement needs to make real attempts to understand the issues facing international students and to organise them into our ranks. Overseas examples show that it is possible and that big companies like UberEats, Deliveroo and Foodora can be forced into line.
By Tim Tran