NSW government announces taskforce to investigate food delivery deaths

A New South Wales government taskforce will investigate the gig economy after another food delivery worker was killed in Sydney – the fifth death among food delivery workers across Australia in the past two months.

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Photograph: Speed Media/Rex/Shutterstock

But Labor and Greens MPs say the taskforce has come too late, and the government should make an “emergency regulation” to take action right now.

A deliverer for Uber Eats was killed on Monday night in a road collision on the intersection of Chalmers and Cleveland streets in Surry Hills at 6.40pm. The man died at the scene after he was hit by a truck carrying an excavator, police said.

© Photograph: Speed Media/REX/Shutterstock
A food delivery rider in the rain in Melbourne. A worker killed in a collision in Sydney on Monday night was the fifth death in two months.

Another Uber Eats food deliver, Bijoy Paul, was killed in Sydney on Saturday.

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On average, one food delivery rider has died in Australia every 11 days since 27 September.

Related: Australia’s delivery deaths: the riders who never made it and the families left behind

On Tuesday afternoon, the minister for transport, Andrew Constance, and the minister for better regulation, Kevin Anderson, announced that a new taskforce would investigate the deaths in Sydney.

The taskforce will have the power to investigate the food delivery companies and “make findings for any immediate improvements or compliance activity”.

But NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the taskforce would only discover what people already knew.

“Gig economy workers need training, safety equipment and workers compensation and to be paid the minimum wage,” he said. “It’s good the government recognises there is a problem here, but this isn’t a solution – it’s a delaying tactic at best.”

An ongoing NSW inquiry into the gig economy, chaired by Labor MP Daniel Mookhey, had also heard evidence from multiple food riders about their conditions.

Mookhey told Guardian Australia the government should have implemented “emergency regulations” instead.

“SafeWork NSW doesn’t need a taskforce to investigate, it is their job. Safework NSW should be explaining why they haven’t issued any prohibition orders to any of these platforms where riders have died.

“Instead of announcing a meeting, the minister should be announcing a new emergency regulation to deliver better standards right now,” Mookhey said. “The government should also be backing Labor’s bill to provide minimum safety standards and equipment for riders.”

A survey conducted by the Transport Workers’ Union in September found that food deliverers earned an average of just $10.42 an hour after costs – 73% said they were worried about being “seriously hurt or killed” at work.

On Saturday, Paul, a 27-year-old man from Bangladesh, was hit by a car in the suburb of Rockdale while on a delivery for Uber Eats.

Chow Khai Shien, a 36-year-old from Malaysia who worked for DoorDash, died in central Melbourne on 24 October. Xiaojun Chen, who worked for the app Hungry Panda, and Dede Fredy, another Uber Eats rider, died in Sydney on 27 and 29 September respectively.

The union is now calling for the federal government to set up an inquiry into the deaths and the gig economy.

A spokeswoman for Uber Eats said: “In isolation this fatality is devastating.

“But when considered alongside other recent incidents across the on-demand food delivery sector, it is all the more concerning. It is clear the industry needs to do more to improve road safety.”

The spokeswoman said the food delivery company was “committed to playing a leading role in achieving this”.

A day earlier, after the death of Paul, the company had declined to say whether the company would be changing its provision of safety equipment or its training.

In November three food delivery riders also told a New South Wales parliament inquiry that their pay had been cut during the pandemic, even as demand for food delivery surged.

Earlier on Tuesday, Constance said the deaths were an issue that deserves “airtime”.

When asked about a Labor bill to provide more protections for riders, he said that the government should work with companies first, and the drivers themselves.

“More needs to be done in terms of the reflective equipment that they are wearing … We want to make sure they increase their visibility on the roads,” he said. “Let’s work with the companies on a solution, and the drivers themselves. There has to be a degree of self-responsibility.”

Constance said that the state government “doesn’t have the answers just yet” but “we might look at some regulation”.

Federal Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi said that many food delivery riders had turned to the job because they were not covered by government support such as jobkeeper and jobseeker during the pandemic.

“When jobs evaporated earlier this year, many visa-holders turned to precarious and dangerous work in the exploitative gig economy,” she said. “Without access to income support, they had no other choice.

“Migrants’ exclusion from the Covid safety net has been a disgrace.”

Delivery company Deliveroo told a NSW inquiry into the gig economy that it received “a surge in applications” of “hundreds of riders” during the pandemic.

Under Australian labour laws, workers for food delivery apps are classified as independent contractors rather than employees. This means they are not entitled to minimum wage, sick leave, annual leave and other entitlements.

In NSW, some workers are entitled to compensation for their families if they die in the workplace or as a result of a work-related injury. Employees are largely covered by these laws but for independent contractors it can vary.

The families of Chen and Chow told Guardian Australia previously that they still did not know how much compensation they would receive for their relatives’ deaths.

On Friday, before the two most recent deaths in Sydney, a spokesman for Porter told Guardian Australia that companies should look at doing more to provide protections for their workers.

“It would seem that there are potential commercial advantages for companies that go the extra step to look after their workforce, whether they are employees or contractors,” he said. “As with any other employer, those with the best reputation and policies that benefit workers will be more sought after as the workplace of choice.”

After Monday’s collision, the driver of the truck was taken to St Vincent’s hospital for mandatory testing. Police investigations are ongoing.

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