Category: Employment

Uber is coming to Canberra. Will you use it?

If you are a regular taxi user, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Uber, the upstart company that is threatening taxi industries all over the world.

Already operating in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, Uber hopes to start operating in Canberra by October, with 1000 people already expressing interest in becoming drivers.

Uber works by providing two smartphone apps: one for riders and one for drivers. Riders request a ride, and drivers indicate their availability to provide a ride. Uber provides three options: UberBlack, a luxury hire care service; UberTaxi, a request for a licensed cab; and UberX, to request a “regular” car.

It is UberX that has caused the most consternation among the taxi industry and some pundits, since these cars are operated by “ordinary” people. Uber has always maintained that it is not a taxi service, but an “on-demand ride sharing” service.

Despite most governments declaring UberX to be illegal as it was launched, Uber has simply paid the fines and blocked the mobile phones of undercover government investigators attempting to bust these “unregistered” drivers.

There is a legitimate case for concern about UberX. As Andrew Leigh, Member for Fraser wrote:

The regulatory issues surrounding Uber are varied and complex. They include the need to ensure public safety both for those in the car and on surrounding public streets, and the lack of transparency about the company’s pricing model and relationship with its drivers. Then there’s the question of insurance for mixed private and commercial use of a car, and the challenge of ensuring that drivers pay tax on what they earn.

Despite this, Uber’s aggressive tactics seem to be working. Attempts to prosecute UberX drivers in the courts are mostly failing. The WANSW, and ACT governments are conducting reviews into the taxi industry. Uber itself has indicated that it wants to operate under a regulated model.

None of Uber’s tactics would matter if the service offered wasn’t one that people wanted, but given that more than 11 per cent of Sydney residents used UberX or another ride-sharing servicein 2014, including politicians, demand doesn’t appear to be an issue.

The question seems to be when, not if, UberX will be allowed to operate legally in Australia. What are the concerns that should be addressed? UnionsACT have submitted that Uber drivers should be considered employees and not contractors:

Although Uber refers to drivers as “independent contractors”, Uber drivers have few or none of the characteristics of a genuine independent contractor. A more appropriate term to refer to Uber drivers’ and other “on demand” workers’ form of employment is “on-hire employment services” where workers are covered by their employing company and work in a host organisation or on specific tasks.

A Californian court recently agreed with this point of view, finding that UberX drivers were employees of the company. This was, in part, because “Uber controls the tools driver use, monitors their approval ratings and terminates their access to the system if their ratings fall below 4.6 stars”.

Not that the taxi industry is a haven of happy drivers either. UnionsACT noted in their same submission that:

The taxi industry for decades has grossly exploited drivers. In 2011 the average hourly rate for a taxi driver was approximately $10 per hour, far below the minimum wage. Reports into the industry found it was rife with poor working conditions, unacceptable risks to safety and low levels of remuneration.

It’s important for governments to protect workers against exploitation, but much like technology has massively changed the way we consume music and videos, it’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. There aren’t easy solutions here. And if the taxi industry thinks it has problems now, just wait until driverless cars become common – possibly as little as 10 years away.

Time for the Commonwealth to stop trashing Canberra’s town centres

As recent articles have reported, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is considering moving its 4000 employees out of Belconnen. Tender documents have revealed the department is looking to lease 80,000 square metres of building space in one precinct.

More recently, the Department of Finance assumed responsibility for this decision as part of a broader accommodation review announced by the Federal Government. Finance has promised to take local interests into account, a line hailed as indicating success in the campaign against the move in the media and by some community groups.

This would be premature.

For a start, neither Finance or Immigration can explain how the concept of a ‘local interest’ can be incorporated into a tender process that assumes a level playing field for respondents. And even if Immigration stays in Belconnen (as it rightly should), it’s only a matter of time before another rogue Departmental Secretary thinks it’s a good idea to try something like this again. Just back in 2013 there were similar rumours of Centrelink employees being moved out of Tuggeranong.

The impact caused by Departments leaving town centres can be devastating. Think about what would happen if Immigration left Belconnen:

  • There would be an estimated $41 million annual loss to businesses in the Belconnen town centre, with further job losses and shop closures inevitable. The new apartment buildings being constructed in the area would become less appealing for buyers.
  • The two most likely locations for a relocated Immigration department are Civic and the airport. Either way, the thousands of employees living northside will have to squeeze through the chokepoints at Civic and/or Russell in morning and afternoon peak hour traffic. More cars on the road means more delays and more stress.
  • Assuming that most employees live near Belconnen, any shift could increase typical commute times by up to an hour per day. Quite aside from the additional transport costs, this move completely ignores any commitments that its employees might have outside work, like school pickups for children. The public service should be a model employer, and to consider acting in this way sends a message that the needs of its employees don’t matter.

The Federal Government is by far the largest employer in the ACT. Precisely because of these large potential impacts, the local governments of most cities with a single major employer remain in constant conversation about employment and investment decisions. Yet the ACT Government remains strangely disengaged about this whole affair, and appears to be just hoping that things work out.

I have been campaigning over the last few months for an improved and permanently agreed process for handling Commonwealth department relocations.  Any such process should routinely include conversations with affected staff, the Chief Minister, and the local community.

If the Department of Immigration needs all its workers in the one location, moving 4000 Immigration workers to another location after 40 years in Belconnen isn’t the way to go. It would be far better to move the 1500 Customs workers to Belconnen. As this would have a smaller but noticeable effect on the economy in Civic, a cautious approach is still necessary. This is a good opportunity for the Department of Finance and the ACT Government to trial a more consultative approach.

My Canberra Times Op-Ed: National Capital Plan should protect workers as well as monuments

An op-ed piece by me has been published in the Canberra Times.

Kim Fischer Immigration Op-Ed

The National Capital Plan can be used to protect workers against the proposed move by the Department of Immigration from Belconnen, and any future proposals:

My suggestion is to include requirements that mandate consultation and planning to mitigate impact any time more than 250 federal public service employees are moved outside a “Defined Office Employment Centre” (ie town centres and the airport) within six months. This process must include, at a minimum, discussions with the ACT Chief Minister and the affected community.

Question to the National Capital Authority on protecting Belconnen employment

I asked the National Capital Authority at their Annual Public Forum on Thursday what they were planning to do to respond to the potential move of the Department of Immigration out of Belconnen. Specifically, how they intended to make it so that Canberra wouldn’t be left in this situation in the future.

I wasn’t very impressed with their response. Apparently Belconnen is in the Parliamentary Triangle now?

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