ExecInsights Podcast

ExecInsights – Penny Williams on Digital Platform Work in Australia

Dr Penny Williams QUT

In this episode of QUT ExecInsights, Dr Penny Williams, Lecturer in QUT’s Business School, speaks with me about her collaborative research which produced the first ever Digital Platform Work in Australia survey. Penny speaks on who is engaging in platform work such as Uber and Airtasker, what we know about the experience of those who engage with these platforms, and how trends may evolve in the future. Penny also spoke about the regulation required to ensure those on the margins of the workforce receive an appropriate return for their labour.

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Dr Kate Joyner 0:08
Welcome to QUT Executive Insights, brought to you by QUTeX – Professional and Executive Education for the real world. I’m your host Kate Joyner, with me is Dr. Penny Williams. Penny is a lecturer in human resource management in QUT’s Business School. Some of Penny’s research interests are new ways of working in the digital economy. With colleagues, Professor Paula McDonald and Associate Professor Robyn Mayes from QUT, as well as researchers from University of Technology Sydney and the University of Adelaide, Penny last year conducted the first ever national Digital Platform Work in Australia survey. With economic downturn putting the issue of platform work and the gig economy firmly into the spotlight, I’m looking forward to learning more about this aspect of the labour economy. So welcome, Penny. That’s exciting research, I think. And you were just telling me before we started recording that you started on this work as a postdoc.

Dr Penny Williams 1:02
I did, on a broader project that looks at work in the gig economy. And then the national survey became one part of that, which I played a pretty key part in.

Dr Kate Joyner 1:15
Yes, I’ve read the national survey. And it certainly just tells us just about, it’s a good snapshot of this aspect of the economy at the moment. But even so with the downturn, I suppose, I know that things have moved on even further, about how people are engaging in it. So we’ll certainly get to that. But before we answer those sort of questions, I suppose the audience would like to know, how would we actually define platform work? And what companies would we know that I suppose fall into that category of platform work?

Dr Penny Williams 1:45
Sure, Kate. So I guess the most common example of a digital platform is Uber. That’s the one everybody knows, or the food delivery platforms like Deliveroo. But there are digital platforms exist in many different types of work. And the distinguishing features are that these are business models that connect users, end users with, so people providing services with people who need those services, or businesses who need those services. So the unique features of digital platforms are that they’re not actually an employer. So a digital platform is a technology company, it’s a website, it’s a meeting place, it might be defined as many different things. And the workers are not employees. They’re independent contractors. And so what is quite unique about this business model is there’s a triangular relationship. There’s three parties, the platform, the client, and the worker. And the platform’s role is to mediate those two, the interactions between the two. Where digital platform work is particularly unique and why it’s such a, why it’s often in the media, I suppose, and often, and it’s an interesting area to research is because the workers are not employees, they’re also not treated as a traditional contractor would be. So in a traditional contract relationship, you are working directly for the person who is employing you. But digital platforms also have certain mechanisms that when a worker accesses work through those platforms, they have to comply with those particular terms and conditions and use those apps. So it kind of complicates the employment relationship.

Dr Kate Joyner 3:38
Yes, I suppose it is that complication that is getting everyone’s attention. So particularly at the moment, so I actually heard the CEO of Uber internationally, saying that you really can’t make that kind of employment, regular employment; it just isn’t. So as soon as you do that, he has to kind of take the risk. But we’ll get into all those sort of things later, but it’s firmly in the spotlight at the moment. So let’s go to that national survey. So I’ve had a look, it’s a very interesting collection of statistics about Australia’s engagement, well the workers of Australia how they’re engaging in platform work. So how prevalent is it in Australia? So how many people, I suppose what percentage of the workforce has actually engaged in some form of what we might call platform work?

Dr Penny Williams 4:28
Sure, sure. Well, in our survey, we we surveyed over 14,000 Australians or internet users in Australia, because you have to be an internet user to access a digital platform. And what we found was that over 13% of people had at some time undertaken digital platform work, and about 7% of those were doing so at the moment or had done so in the last 12 months. So it’s a fairly small proportion, but not an insignificant proportion. And there’s some indication that digital platform work is growing.

Dr Kate Joyner 5:04
I think when when we saw, I think as we record, they were producing the employment statistics. And of course, as we speak, it’s September in 2020. So if you’re listening later, you know, in 2022, or 2023, this may have moved on. But at the moment, we were expecting quite dire employment, unemployment rates, but actually, it wasn’t as bad as we thought. And some people attribute that to people’s engagement in platform work. So in the rise of the gig economy, is that a fair theory? Because it’s really too early to know yet, I think.

Dr Penny Williams 5:35
I do think it’s too early to know. And I also think that the way that people engage with digital platforms means that some of them might fall through the cracks in terms of traditional, kind of, being captured in traditional labour market data. And there are some nuances with how people engage with digital platforms and the way that digital platforms operate, that might mean that while there are more opportunities to try and seek work through digital platforms during COVID-19, there’s also potentially more competition, and potentially less demand given the global economy. So you might not actually get much work. So the difficulty with recording people’s participation in digital platform work is that you can register on a digital platform but never actually get any work. So are you employed, or are you not employed?

Dr Kate Joyner 6:28
Have you put your name down as an Uber driver, but never sign up for any shifts? Yeah, well, I suppose if we, because Uber is the one as you say, that most people are familiar with. I did notice in the statistics that more males are engaged in platform work than females. And I was attributing that mostly because of Uber. And I think, well, I don’t know about you, but I rarely have a female Uber driver, when I do I remark on it. Is that a fair sort of assumption that that’s how we could understand that statistic?

Dr Penny Williams 6:59
That’s a difficult one in a way, because definitely there are more men participating in digital platform work than there are women. And what we’re actually seeing is almost the replication of some of the gendered inequalities that exist in the traditional labor market, in the gig economy, because what we found in our survey was that women were particularly concentrated in providing things like care work, data entry, clerical work. So there were more women participating in that type of digital platform work than in transport and food delivery. So I don’t know you can necessarily say that because it’s different. There are some correlations between where the genders, what type of work different genders are doing.

Dr Kate Joyner 7:45
And also in terms of age difference. So I think in the national survey, it said that more, and I suppose you could anticipate there’s more younger workers participating in platform work, than older workers? So is that just because of the technology aspect of it do you think?

Dr Penny Williams 8:00
Look, the technology aspect may play a part, but I actually think it’s more to do with the ease of entry to the marketplace. So you don’t need qualifications necessarily, for most digital platforms you can just register as a user and start accessing work. So there are a lot of students and people who would be otherwise unemployed, who are seeking work through digital platforms. And also, most Australians actually use digital platforms just to supplement an income.

Dr Kate Joyner 8:08
So it’s rarely their main gig, is that right?

Dr Penny Williams 8:35
That’s right. And so I think for students in particular, and young people, they can often use digital platform work just to increase their income when they need it, and also be flexible around things like their study.

Dr Kate Joyner 8:51
So which gets us to the next question about people’s experiences of workers who are engaged in these platforms. So, and I suppose that this is what gets us interested in this, you know, this particular aspect. So, I mean, is this the new salt mines of the economy, or I have to admit, I had one little experience a couple of weeks ago, and I was walking in one of my local villages and where there’s a lot of restaurants so there’s a lot of workers there who wait on their e-scooters, and so forth, waiting for orders from the surrounding restaurants. And there was one poor girl, she was obviously an international student I would say, and she was sitting next to her bike, just weeping. And I thought, okay, and I just thought.

Dr Penny Williams 9:34
Oh no, that’s terrible.

Dr Kate Joyner 9:34
And I guess for some people that this is their vision of what work in these platforms can be like so it can be a bit immiserating I think but that may not be true. I’m sure there’s many people out there who say no, you know, I wouldn’t be without it. I love it. It’s gives me flexibility. You know, like I can do it or not do it when I’m busy and so forth. So what do we know about people’s experiences?

Dr Penny Williams 10:02
Yeah, look, the experiences are mixed. But what we do know is that people are often attracted to digital platforms because of the flexibility that it offers. And that sense of autonomy, you know, that sense of being my own boss and working when I want to work. But we also found through the survey that a lot of people left digital platform work, because they couldn’t get any work. They couldn’t get the hours they wanted, or they were putting in too much time and effort for a small return. So they just weren’t, probably the biggest motivator is to earn an income, but they weren’t earning enough of an income to make it worth their while. And that’s often a function of the competition that exists within these platform environments.

Dr Kate Joyner 10:49
Yes, and I think this is where there’s a lot of conversation at the moment about whether companies like Uber should put their work on a similar footing to employed workers. So it should fall within what we understand of industrial relations conditions in Australia, so that there can be benefits and so forth. And that’s quite current at the moment, as we speak, with legislation trying to be introduced into Australia to regulate some of this work. What do we know about that?

Dr Penny Williams 11:19
What we know is that there’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the need to regulate digital platform work. And I think that’s driven by the fact that workers really wear the risk. So they’re not getting superannuation, they’re not getting sick leave, they’re not necessarily having the same entitlement to a safe work environment that an employee would. And we’ve seen, you know, we’ve seen the outcomes of that during this current COVID-19 crisis when, you know, people need to go to work for the income, the devastating effects that can potentially have if they’re sick. So I think that’s kind of increasing the desire to look at how we regulate this type of work to provide better protections for people because there’s a long term social impact if this type of work grows, which it likely will.

Dr Kate Joyner 12:09
So when we say, which is one of the questions, what do we think about what is going to be the future of digital platform work, because we are speaking about, as you said, women doing sort of at home clerical administrative work on platforms like, what are they, Fiverr and that sort of thing, and Freelancer and those sort of things as well as the transport. And we had as our QUT Business Leaders Forum last week, we had Susan Anderson from Uber. So that’s well worth a listen, that will be on our platform as well. She was talking about, you know, that solving more sort of transport problems, you know, through through platform work. So it is growing, and I’m sure there’ll be more platforms that will emerge. So what are we, what can we reasonably foresee? Am I likely to as an academic go onto a platform? I’ll wait to see what’s coming up in the strategic update.

Dr Penny Williams 13:00
[Laughs] I wouldn’t rule anything out.

Dr Kate Joyner 13:04
I’m sure there already are, in fact. I just don’t know about them.

Dr Penny Williams 13:07
Well, actually, it’s interesting you say that, because when we did the survey, we listed as many platforms as we were aware of to identify what platforms people were working on in Australia. And we found that there are over 100 different platforms that Australians were working on. And the most popular was, in fact, Airtasker, not Uber. Uber was second. But what we also found was some industries that we hadn’t thought of like education, tutors, and even personal trainers, massage therapists, all of these.

Dr Kate Joyner 13:41
That’s Mindbody I think, isn’t it that one?

Dr Penny Williams 13:43
Yes. And then there’s also, you know, professional services work. So there are a lot of people providing financial advice, or HR advice, or doing project management that have been engaged through digital platforms. So it, it’s really, it’s a mode of connecting people. So there is no reason that it can’t expand. But it has to be done, I think, in an ethical way, and a way that’s beneficial for the economy, long term.

Dr Kate Joyner 14:14
So what are some of the complexities about getting that regulation happening? I suppose that I mean, the platforms themselves are pushing back saying that, you know, in order for platform work to actually work, it can’t function like an employer. It can’t actually offer those benefits for a number of reasons. So he said, you know, the main value, this is I’m talking about the CEO of Uber, here, he was saying that the drivers themselves are happy to work, you know, some shifts and some areas that are not particularly profitable, but are close to them. But if he has to pay them a certain amount, the onus is on him to make those hours productive. So he has to send them to places that he doesn’t necessarily, they may not necessarily want to go. So it’s kind of a trade off between what they value most which is flexibility and then him trying to get his return. So yeah, that’s probably just one of the many complexities about trying to make it look like regular employment.

Dr Penny Williams 15:08
Yeah, there are a lot of complexities, and there are a lot of stakeholders in it. And so platforms, of course, you know, they’re making profit over having no staff, or no, you know, they’re producing. Yeah, they’re providing labour without employees, that’s a really profitable way of running a business.

Dr Kate Joyner 15:28
Except they’re not profitable. That’s the…

Dr Penny Williams 15:30
Well, in Uber’s case they’re not necessarily profitable. No, but you know.

Dr Kate Joyner 15:33
That’s because of growth. That’s the trade off for growth, right?

Dr Penny Williams 15:37
Well, yeah, there’s probably a whole range of reasons that I’m probably not the best person to comment on in relation to that. But yeah, that’s, I guess, the complexities of the different stakeholders, there’s also complexities in relation to what is an employee, you know, how do you define an employee? And how do we distinguish the differences between an independent contractor or a contractor, which is the legitimate form of employing people, from an employee. So there’s all these little nuances that make it quite complex.

Dr Kate Joyner 16:09
But the whole trend towards as you said, at the beginning, it transfers the risk onto that poor international student with her e-scooter. So the risk is all on her. So that, but that does seem to be an increasing trend in employment so that large employers actually want to transfer that risk onto individuals, which, as you say, has some, you know, all sorts of externalities about what that does for society as a whole and the fragility of our work. Is that what we’re seeing in the future, do you think? Or are you more hopeful?

Dr Penny Williams 16:38
Look, I’m more hopeful than that. I’m hopeful that there’s a group of people out there pushing for something different. And, I do think that there is, I do think there is a desire to see that change to find a better balance, you know, because, of course, we have to find innovative ways to do business, and we have to find profitable ways to grow our economy. But we can do that. We can do that in ways that benefit society. And I think, you know, at the moment, we’ve seen a recent inquiry by the Victorian Government into the on-demand workforce, which produced a whole range of recommendations about how we can find a better balance. We’re currently seeing an inquiry in New South Wales on the future of work and workers that looks particularly at the gig economy and the use of AI and automation in work. That’s, that’s looking at similar issues. It was only a couple of years ago that we had, you know, a senate inquiry into the future of work and workers. So there is, I think there is a desire to find a way to find a middle ground that can make our, open our economy for growth for companies like Uber or Airtasker that ensure that we’re not exploiting those who might already be on the margins of society. Because if you look at who’s participating, people who would otherwise be unemployed—migrants, students, those that are already vulnerable workers. So how do we protect them?

Dr Kate Joyner 18:11
And is that some of the research questions that you’re pursuing at the moment? What’s interesting you and your research team in this area at the moment?

Dr Penny Williams 18:19
Well, we’re looking at this from a range of different perspectives. We’re working with Professor Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide to look at the terms and conditions of digital platforms, and whether there are there potentially unfair terms in relation to the Australian Consumer Law. Rather than just focusing on our labour law perspectives. We’re also, we’ve recently done a series of interviews with care workers on one of the largest digital care platforms in the world to find out about their experiences in providing aged, disability and child care through digital platforms, because there are some unique risks associated with inviting a care worker who’s not part of an agency into your home to care for you. And vice versa for that worker. So we’re doing a lot of work in that space. We’re also looking at, so digital platforms use a form of what’s called algorithmic management. So they allocate tasks, they do their scheduling, they use rating and review systems that are all driven through algorithms. And so now we’re looking at how algorithmic management is being applied to non digital platform work. So in traditional organisations, and how that’s contributing to the automation of work, and also looking at how, what role AI is playing in that space.

Dr Kate Joyner 19:53
Well, that’s fascinating. So I look forward to hearing more about the outcomes of that research because it is certainly, you know, reflective of broader economic trends as well. So I really look forward to hearing more about that. And I congratulate you and your research team. And thank you for the conversation.

Dr Penny Williams 20:10
Thanks, Kate. It’s been a pleasure.


Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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