Work safety for ‘gig’ economy employees – changes ahead
Published 12 March 2021
The disruptions caused by the growth of the gig economy enabled free enterprise and offered new service options but has also served to deregulate some industries and remove standard protections. Recently government focus has turned to protecting the safety and wellbeing of gig employees, with significant implications for some Australian employers.
The basis for gig employment is the one-off provision of labour at a specified time, like a performer’s act at a particular venue, hence the term ‘gig’ and can also relate to ride-share and delivery drivers via Uber or Deliveroo, or National Disability Insurance Service (NDIS) providers. This has created a grey area in the employer-employee relationship as to whether the gig service provider is contracted to the employee or not. Currently the Work Health and Safety Act doesn’t provide protection to most individuals working in the gig economy on the basis of the contract of employment.
“The vague and undefined contractual nature of work for those who contract their services to major apps (such as Uber or Deliveroo) has led to gig workers claiming that they carry all the risk with very little protection or coverage against risk of workplace injury, with no workers’ compensation,’ says Keith Govias, Gallagher Principal Consultant, Workplace Risk.
These gig economy apps claim their drivers are independent self-employed workers and that the app is simply a gateway and payment facility, and this may have seemed reasonable when these start-ups were fledgling enterprises – but the more famous have grown in wealth through income generated by these workers, while the underlying relationship remains unchanged.
Gig economy workers lack standard work health and safety protections
The nature of the gig economy does not fit neatly into current legal definitions, and this has created a large contingent of workers who are not afforded the same level of protective coverage as traditional employees. A useful example is the heavily regulated taxi industry compared to businesses such as Uber that don’t provide the same protections for workers (drivers).
In addition to road accidents the risk of workplace violence is among the major concerns for these workers who may be called to jobs where people are affected by alcohol or drugs, and behave aggressively towards the driver. In certain sectors gig economy employees are predominately young – under 35 years of age – without skills to deal with threatening situations, and for some English is not their first language.
Regulatory changes likely to affect gig economy operators
Now some state governments are introducing or reviewing schemes for mandatory levies on gig services operators to contribute to a pool of funds for driver compensations ‒but these are projected to fall short of workers’ compensation benefits ‒ and are also moving toward providing safety guidelines for gig driver employers.
In addition, recently Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese proposed ‘portable entitlements’ that workers could transfer from one workplace to another, in order to give more protection to people who choose gig work for greater flexibility. As the gig economy grows it is also likely we will see more unionisation of gig workers in order to protect and advocate for their rights as workers and support them in cases such as workplace injury.
The rising focus of government on the gig economy, mooted regulatory changes, increasing unionisation, as well as the desire to meet corporate social responsibility targets is driving change in the way businesses who utilise the service of gig workers view their responsibilities.
The role of risk management in meeting gig worker protection challenges
Technology and scale present unique challenges to employers – especially when they have an ‘arms-length’ touchpoint with workers. The normal onsite training, induction and face to face supervision model is being challenged and up-ended.
Businesses’ liability insurance is likely to be affected by how these regulatory changes play out and the Gallagher Workplace Risk team is working with clients across various “gig” economy modes of operation to build risk management into their operations. This includes introducing risk assessment, pathways for workers to report concerns and mechanisms for response. As a bottom line, gig based service providers need the right insurance and policy wordings to protect their business.
Targeted insurance cover that can provide gig worker protections
The Gallagher Workplace Risk team supports our clients in the gig economy through development of targeted and creative insurance products. This includes partnering with our clients to build platforms for gig workers to incept personal accident cover and other policies such as compulsory third party motor insurance and public liability.
With other clients, particularly in the National Disability Insurance Service (NDIS)-backed disability support space, WPR have developed bespoke Group Personal Accident policies, meaning the gig economy business is providing enhanced coverage to their users without compromising the employment relationship.
Bespoke health and safety solutions
We actively support our clients in the gig economy space in building risk management into their operations. This includes introducing risk assessment, pathways for workers to report concerns and mechanisms for response.
For example, we have been working with a large NDIS/community health provider that uses a gig economy business model. This client utilises an online platform to verify and source care support workers (through a ‘casual’ award arrangement) in the community care sector nationally, and has worked with Gallagher Workplace Risk for the past 12 months to address improvement opportunities in their risk management practices.
We have worked together with this client to ‘build in’ risk management processes that apply to the gig-economy model by
co-designing a work, health and safety framework that provides a continuous road map for achieving safety management and governance for company officers and the business
building a fit-for-purpose incident reporting process – capturing accurate data was paramount
advising on assurance activities such as lodging and reviewing corrective actions, investigations and aligning these to benchmarks.
By being able to identify and report accurate data through the above activities, the business has identified priority risk controls and designed targeted training programs around these – taking on a more ‘mature’ risk management approach within their operations at scale.
These activities have allowed the business to build a comprehensive safety performance report to assist the company officers to demonstrate due diligence toward risk management practices and knowledge, as required for senior management under workplace health and safety legislation.
The next frontier for gig economy businesses is the return to work and rehabilitation space. Currently gig workers don’t have access to help get them back to work. Usually much of the support that enables rehabilitation and a successful return to work comes from the employer, which is not available to gig workers.
The Gallagher Workplace Risk team works with gig-based service providers to build early intervention and workplace rehabilitation services that ensure the users have treatment, recovery and return to work pathways that achieve strong outcomes.
This is primarily achieved through
access to occupational therapists
access to self-help tools to guide gig workers through their recovery and return to work process
connections to government support systems to manage their injury-related expenses.
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The Gallagher Workplace Health & Safety offering encompasses everything from safety mentoring and training through to health and wellness programs, hazard and risk profiling, and incident management and investigation.