Uber Australia Is Creating a Yellow Union to Head Off Reform

After expanding into Australia over a decade ago, Uber is now setting up employer-controlled committees that mimic real union structures. It’s part of a multipronged strategy aimed at heading off demands for better wages and safer conditions.

People walk past an Uber carshare car parking at Bondi Beach on February 11, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

Since 2017, fifteen food-delivery riders have lost their lives on Australian roads. And this is only the most tragic outcome of an industry that systematically mistreats workers. As numerous media reports have revealed, gig workers face substandard rights and a myriad of workplace dangers as they struggle to make ends meet on paltry wages.

Over the last year, however, the Anthony Albanese Labor government has pressed ahead with its plans to regulate gig work, putting companies like Uber under pressure. In response, Uber has ramped up initiatives to ensure it can continue to profitably operate in Australia, which has been described as Uber’s “crown jewel” due to the phenomenal profits the company makes there.

The company has engaged closely with Parliament on the gig-worker reforms. And, aware that the Transport Workers’ Union is attempting to organize, or at least regulate, the industry, Uber has also set up a national committee to consult with its workers on health and safety issues. However, according to one of the workers’ representatives who spoke to Jacobin, Uber’s committee might not be as empowering or representative as the company claims.

The Gig Economy’s “Double Movement”

To understand Uber’s initiative, it helps to have an overview of the recent expansion of gig-work companies like Uber, which has involved two major phases.

Roughly speaking, this two-part process can be seen as a microlevel version of a “double movement,” a concept advanced by Hungarian economic sociologist Karl Polanyi in his 1944 work The Great Transformation. According to Polanyi, the first movement describes a period of capitalist-driven upheaval that is followed by a countermovement in which the state intervenes to mitigate the upheaval’s destructive effects.

In the first part of the gig-economy double movement, companies and investors pushed aggressively to flood the market — and in Uber’s case, this meant undercutting the taxi industry in order to grab massive swathes of customers.

Part of this meant sidestepping existing workplace regulations. Documents leaked to the Guardian showed that, when Uber launched in Australia in 2012, the company knew it was operating illegally, as it lacked the required commercial vehicle and driver licenses.

It was, after all, a similar tactic to that which it had used in other countries. As the Silicon Valley maxim has it, the goal was to “move fast and break things.”

After establishing a large and loyal customer base, Uber then moved to the second phase by lobbying to legalize its operation, increase its social license, and ensure that any state intervention would occur on terms favorable to the company.

As the company’s head of public policy said in an email to his team in 2015, “Ops has poured gasoline on the fire, so now it’s up to us to protect what they’ve built.”

In an Australian context, Uber’s second phase now means ensuring that Labor governments don’t impose an industrial-relations framework that might threaten its business model.

So far, the signs are that this has been successful. According to a Senate inquiry report, over the last year, the Labor government has agreed to some of Uber’s suggested amendments to its Closing Loopholes legislation, praising the company for its “constructive approach.” For its part, Uber welcomed the bill as “a significant step forward in ensuring a sustainable future for Australia’s gig economy.”

The legislation, which passed in February, gives the Fair Work Commission (FWC) the power to impose minimum standards in the gig-work industry. However, the precise nature of those standards will be determined when a case is brought before the FWC, which won’t happen before August this year at the earliest.

A Potemkin Health and Safety Committee?

Part of Uber’s strategy for the second phase has included setting up structures mimicking those that can be established by organized workers in other sectors, such as health and safety committees.

Health and safety committees are elected by workers and have a range of statutory powers, depending on the state or territory. Perhaps most significantly, if a health and safety representative identifies unsafe conditions, they can shut down a worksite or direct a worker to stop working.

In many workplaces, employees organize among themselves to form these committees. In this case, however, Comrade Uber has taken the initiative to form its own committee.

Last year, Uber Eats called on workers to nominate for its National Work Health & Safety Committee via app notifications and emails, with representatives from every state and territory divided into the type of vehicle they used.

Registered Uber workers then elected representatives from among the nominees. However, as Uber didn’t answer questions from Jacobin about what percentage of its workforce had taken part in voting, it’s unknown how representative the successful nominees were.

Furthermore, according to the committee’s website, over half of the committee was hand-picked by the company itself. Uber says it decided to incorporate non-elected members to adequately “represent the diverse voices of delivery people, including diversity of gender and cultural background.”

According to the committee’s website, the committee’s role is to “provide input from the delivery people they represent,” which involves engaging “regularly with those delivery people to understand and distill important WHS issues.”

So far, “engagement” consists of a link to a Google form that workers can use to contact their representatives about health and safety concerns. These messages are then sent to a generic email address. Beyond this, it’s unclear what other forms of engagement Uber has in mind.

However, the Google form is not a direct link between workers and their representatives.

As an Uber WHS committee member recently told Jacobin, as of late February, that the company had not yet given committee members access to that generic email address. According to the rep — whom Jacobin has chosen not to name — Uber had promised to give them access to the email following the committee’s first quarterly meeting of 2024. Uber also did not answer questions about whether the representatives have been given access to this email.

The form itself states that “all information is provided directly” to worker representatives. However, Jacobin and another Uber worker put this to the test in early March. Both requests were answered not by worker representatives, but by Uber’s “industrial relations” officer. It’s not clear whether this person fields all incoming messages submitted via the Google form.

Ordinarily, workplace law guarantees workers access to health and safety representatives (HSR). As outlined by Safe Work Australia, employers must “ensure workers’ health and safety interests are well represented and each worker can easily access their HSR.”

According to the rep who spoke to Jacobin, Uber has also provided no information on the hours expected of committee members. Indeed, the representative repeatedly used the word “obscure” to describe the process thus far and explained that as of late February, the committee hadn’t met since November, when its members were flown up to Sydney and put up in a luxury hotel for their induction. The company also treated them to dinner at Sydney’s Babylon Rooftop bar and grill.

Uber Union?

Unions typically view health and safety as an essential part of the overall goal of organizing workers to win better wages and conditions. Indeed, as unions regularly point out, workplace safety can’t be separated from wages. Because gig workers are paid per job rather than per hour, it’s a system that encourages them to take risks to avoid delays and the lower earnings that result.

This is a major problem in the gig economy. The Uber Eats delivery rep who spoke to Jacobin said they personally earn on average $18 to $20 per hour, well below Australia’s minimum wage of $23.23. This report is unlikely to be an isolated or exceptional case — according to a 2023 survey of over one thousand gig workers, at least 57 percent of food-delivery workers are paid less than minimum wage.

Additionally, it’s an essential principle of trade unionism that workers have the right to organize autonomously from their employers. And yet, one of the first things a visitor sees on the Uber WHS committee website is a banner proclaiming that “the Transport Workers Union (TWU) acknowledges and supports the establishment of a National WHS Committee.”

Jacobin reached out to the TWU to ask whether it has any involvement with the committee, and whether it had confidence that Uber was genuinely seeking to empower its representatives.

According to TWU secretary Michael Kaine, Uber developed its plans to form a WHS committee after TWU members in Canberra used statutory rights to set up work groups with elected workers as health and safety representatives.

Additionally, a TWU spokesperson confirmed that several TWU members had been elected as safety representatives in the Australian Capital Territory, and as a result would be eligible to sit on Uber’s national committee. Beyond this, the union gave no indication that it has any ongoing role with the committee.

The TWU and Uber

The TWU has spearheaded the push to regulate the gig economy. In 2021, the TWU and Uber signed a statement of principles about baseline conditions in the industry. And the TWU was no doubt instrumental in pushing Labor to include gig-work reforms in the Closing Loopholes legislation.

However, efforts to organize the industry — as distinct from regulating it — are slow going. As the TWU’s spokesperson told Jacobin, the union has hundreds of transport gig worker members, including food-delivery riders, rideshare drivers, and Amazon Flex couriers, across the country.

If Uber’s claim of 150,000 workers using the Uber and Uber Eats app is correct, that represents union density of less than 1 percent, a low figure, even in comparison with Australia’s relatively low rate of unionization.

But it’s not hard to understand the reasons for this. Simply put, gig workers aren’t an easy sector to unionize.

Gig workers are fragmented and culturally and linguistically diverse, and few plan a long-term career in the “industry.” And with such low and precarious income, the idea of giving some of it away in union dues is no doubt an unappealing proposition.

However, there are important precedents. There are similar challenges to organizing Australia’s itinerant, migrant-dominated fruit and vegetable workforce — but other unions have nevertheless made inroads there.

If gig workers aren’t going to be unionized anytime soon, it makes sense for the TWU to lobby for better regulations or to launch challenges at Fair Work rather than threatening gig-work companies with industrial muscle that it doesn’t have.

If the union can use its political heft within Labor to advocate for legislative changes like the recent gig-work reforms, this can be part of a broader organizing strategy.

However, Uber’s health and safety committee demonstrates not only that gig-work titans have a long-term public relations strategy. It also highlights weaknesses in a union strategy that focuses on lobbying for improved regulations to the exclusion of rank-and-file organizing.

Without engaged and organized workers, the danger is that representative structures will be controlled by employers, who will render them ineffective at best. At worst, they might constitute a form of “union-washing,” allowing exploitative companies to market themselves as pro-worker while subverting genuine attempts to win better conditions. And even if they do facilitate some improvements to safety, it seems highly unlikely that such bodies will raise one of the main drivers of workplace accidents, namely, piece rates that are often well below the legal minimum.