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COVID-19: The Food Delivery Industry and its Superheroes

In what has already been a tough year for everyday Australians, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has made its journey across the world to the shores of Australia. While the federal and state governments are rushing to flatten the curve before the healthcare system spirals out of control, daily life is slowly grinding down to a halt. In the past 24 hours, every aspect of the economy has been experiencing disruption and in particular, the self-employed and independent contractors of the gig economy workers are faced with turbulent conditions; From our rideshare driver that took us home from our latest ‘social distancing’ dinner or drinks, to the delivery worker who brought Domino’s pizza last night straight to our doorstep; they are all impacted. Uncertainty has crept into their work and left them unsure of how to deal with their customers, their health, and income. 

In hospitality, businesses are often family owned and run. These micro and small enterprises rely heavily on customer relationships, a casual labour force, and daily earnings to manage their costs and services. The daily adjustments due to recent draconian COVID-19 rules have led to limited operational hours, and for many, entire closures of restaurants, bars, hotels and cafes. For the businesses that are still open, spillover effects for casual workers and food delivery riders have been devastating. These temporary workers are offered no paid sick leave, health insurance, or a sense of job security as they stand on the frontline of catching the virus. 

Only a few days ago, Jenna, a hospitality worker, wrote about her difficult situation in response to an ABC post, “My work has taken no precautions and we are encouraged not to even mention it for fears of driving away customers.”  

Similarly, Andrew, talked about his anxiety over the outbreak, “I have already been concerned for the last few weeks about the potential impact of COVID-19. I’m concerned about loss of income due to illness or having to stay home to care for my wife or three-year-old son if they fell ill. Bills and home loan repayments don’t stop when you’re sick.”

Events of the last 24 hours and the  shutdown of all non-essential services has meant that both Jenna and Andrew are now out of jobs.

As businesses and customers move to delivery options, food delivery riders have seen a rise in the number of orders for now– this may mean more income, but then the question becomes, at what cost? With each confirmed case, John, a worker for Deliveroo and UberEATS, is reminded of the risk he is taking while being on the job, “Pretty much, everyone in the industry is scared about the coronavirus. And of course, if you don’t go to work, in this kind of arrangement, you don’t make money.” 

More so, most of these riders are on temporary visas, living paycheck to paycheck, and lack access to Medicare benefits in contrast to any Australian citizen. With a rising number of positive tests and no back-up, the prospect of being on the road is grim but a terrifying reality for these riders

Image source: Grattan Institute

 In response to concerns raised, many delivery platforms have worked closely with health authorities to ensure safety protocols are put in place for delivery riders. Deliveroo, UberEATS, DoorDash, Menulog have all introduced “contact-less” or “leave-at-door” policies that allow riders to pick and drop packages at distant points. To support workers affected by COVID-19, most companies have announced additional “hardship” funding for up to 14 days. Measures including the distribution of hand sanitisers, pharmacy vouchers as well as daily reminders and updates have also been put in place, though platforms worker centres, like Ubers’ Greenlight Office in Burwood, have closed.

Despite these being exemplary and fast-acting measures, it is not enough to bridge the protection gap for this transitory workforce. Under Australian work health and safety laws, employers are required to ensure the health and safety of those in the workplace, but as these workers are classified as ‘independent contractors’, no minimum payment, sick leave, holiday pay, or health cover is required to be provided. upcover is developing tailored insurance and portable benefits products to protect these delivery riders now, and the independent contractor workforce of the future. 

As tough circumstances continue, the daily decision to brave through this deadly virus, empty cities, and health risks is a significant contribution by the food delivery riders to keep Australia running during this pandemic. Amidst the many lessons being learned in isolation, these workers, from relentlessly providing meals with joy to fetching groceries for those in need, are teaching us the most important lesson of all: to be human.