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Disabled workers disproportionately victims of wage theft

Research shows that workers with disability are overrepresented in the gig economy and are more likely to work casual hours. For that reason, new employment laws that seek to allow the introduction of minimum standards for these workers cannot afford to be delayed any further.

These minimum standards include pay, penalty rates, superannuation, payment terms, record-keeping, insurance, representation, consultation, working time and potentially a right to annual leave depending on the worker’s situation. With the gig economy on an upward trajectory, these minimum standards should be introduced sooner rather than later.

Slater and Gordon Lawyer in Industrial and Employment law Cassandra Grey said that a significant number of people with disabilities rely on gig economy work to help meet their basic needs of daily life.

The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability published on 2 November 2023, details the evidence received by the Disability Royal Commission — regarding widespread wage theft among firms that hire disabled workers as well as recommendations to ensure truly inclusive employment for workers with disabilities.

The Disability Royal Commission heard evidence from the Australian Human Rights Council that people with disability are more likely than others to work casual hours and work in the gig economy. This means that they are still working without minimum standards and secure pay as the cost-of-living rises, often with additional expenses they must pay for related to their disability.

“This just demonstrates how vital it is to enshrine workers’ rights in these industries, so no workers with disabilities continue to slip through the cracks and the human right of disabled people to be employed in just and favourable conditions can be fully realised.

“Gig economy workers can have low bargaining power, low authority over their work and often receive pay at or below the rates of comparable employees, without the security and protection afforded to employees under Australian industrial relations law. Casual employees also face potential uncertainty of available work usually without any leave entitlements.

“People with disabilities already face tremendous hurdles in the workforce, including finding suitable employment, accessing reasonable adjustments, prejudicial attitudes of employers, discrimination and wage theft. So it’s disappointing, but unsurprising that they’re having to turn to the gig economy to make ends meet,” Ms Grey said.

The proposed reforms will allow the Fair Work Commission to exercise its new jurisdiction to ensure gig economy workers receive added workplace protections. The changes will also make wage theft a criminal offence throughout Australia, increase civil penalties for underpayment offences, prevent employers paying labour hire employees lower rates of pay than their direct employees and amend the defence available to employers who are accused of sham contracts.

The reforms will also make it easier for casual employees to choose to change to permanent employment, provide greater protection from discrimination for employees (including prospective employees) who experience family and domestic violence, and allow digital platform workers to contest unfair deactivation from the apps they work through. Deactivation occurs where a gig economy worker is removed from an app, preventing them from earning an income.

“The statistics emerging from the Disability Royal Commission of the rates of violence, abuse, and neglect of disabled people in Australia are shocking, and it’s time that family and domestic violence was recognised as a protected attribute in anti-discrimination legislation.

“Stable and secure employment benefits both employees and employers. Employers who underpay workers should be made to pay civil penalties proportionate to the amount of the underpayment.”

“These reforms for gig economy and casual workers would positively impact many vulnerable workers who can face substantial power imbalances up against large digital platform employers and should not be delayed.

“Workers with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to being left behind and it’s imperative that our industrial relations system protects the rights of all workers,” Ms Grey said.

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