Thumbs up for gig work,
at least for some workers, some of the time
This job was scored by our participants as on average
(with ten being the most fantastic job imaginable).
In the busy street of Perth’s restaurant hub, a gathering of young men stand next to their scooters, all bearing the large square, black bag, ubiquitously synonymous with Uber Eats.
These men are gig workers whose job it is to deliver food to customers who order from restaurants. The workers log into an ‘app’ on their smartphone and wait around in the vicinity of nearby restaurants until they are notified that an order has been placed and needs to be delivered. Then off they go on their scooters or push bikes (mostly scooters), guided by google maps, to their destinations. They are paid “per gig”, and so none of the waiting time, nor the length of time it takes to deliver food, are reflected in the pay received.
In the media, gig worker jobs are often portrayed as menial, unfairly paid, lacking security, and devoid of employee rights and benefits such as annual leave, sick pay and superannuation. In sum, these jobs are labelled ‘poor-quality’.
But this description doesn’t seem to fully capture the experiences of the gig workers we spoke to. The young men (and they were all men) seemed cheerful and happy. As foreign students, they were keen to improve their English, make friends, and earn enough to get by. They were enamored by the freedom over when they could work, with one worker describing how he could ‘just wake up and get started’. Another went so far as to state that ‘the best point of this, Uber’ was being able to start and finish the work ‘whenever you want to’. The opportunity for social connections was also valued, with workers quoting how they could ‘make friends’ and ‘have fun at the same time (as working)’
The high levels of autonomy and peer support described by our interviewees are hallmarks of a ‘good quality’ job. The instant reward and feedback, with payment per gig, ‘on the spot’ customer feedback and instant online reviews and ratings, can also contribute to a good job experience.
Another attraction was that the start-up costs were low – the lack of prerequisites for getting going as a gig food deliverer (e.g., no responding to job advertisements, no special insurance, no special training) makes the job an accessible one for some people. It is quite clear that, at least for some workers, gig work is a good fit.
The work isn’t all fun and games though. One worker observed that ‘the money’s not really good’ and that ‘sometimes it’s difficult to get a delivery’; which is consistent with research suggesting overall rather low levels of pay for this type of work.
Another worker found the waiting time ‘boring’, which contrasted with the exhaustion of making the actual deliveries by push bike.
We also noticed high noise levels of the surroundings, with traffic, fumes, and pedestrians adding to the chaos and unpredictable nature of the working environment. Such demands require workers to be flexible, adaptable and at ease with uncertainty. As research has suggested, perhaps gig work is seen as attractive partly because of its contrast against plausible alternative (and not-very-good) jobs that are available to these workers given visa restrictions?
Altogether, our brief foray into the world of gig work suggests that, for some people, in a particular space and time, this job seems to do just nicely. The autonomy, social contact, and job feedback are very much welcomed.
But how long such positive views last (maybe those who get fed up or disillusioned just quit?), how widely the jobs appeal (is it a job mainly appreciated by international students?), or how much the positive views reflect mostly a contrast effect (what if the students were comparing this work to, say, professional jobs?) still needs more investigation. Of course, such research is exactly what we plan to do in our Centre of Transformative Work Design, so stay tuned for more details!
 Humphrey, S., E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1332-1356. doi 10.1037/0021-9010.92.5.1332
 Goods, C., Veen, A., & Barratt, T. (2017, August 21). Being exploited and breaching your visa: the limited choices of the food delivery worker. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/being-exploited-and-breaching-your-visa-the-limited-choices-of-the-food-delivery-worker-82589
 Kaine, S., Veen, A., Goods, C., & Josserand, E. (2017, June 19). ‘The way they manipulate people is really saddening’: study shows the trade-offs in gig work. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/the-way-they-manipulate-people-is-really-saddening-study-shows-the-trade-offs-in-gig-work-79042
a little more...
Technology has enabled food delivery gig work to exist in it’s current form, with smartphones, the delivery ‘app’, and google maps all essential tools for the gig worker.
These drive the efficiency of the process from picking up the food to delivering it safely into the hands of a customer. Even the humble bicycle has a part to play, enabling the transport of food from restaurant to customer in a relatively short space of time. Some predict that over 40% of all jobs in Australia will disappear due to automation. How will developments in technology change gig work in the future though? One worker thinks it will become more automatized, with drones doing the deliveries. He thinks that one day there will be no need for delivery workers. He’s not worried about the future of his job though, as he thinks technology has a long way to go before drones take over, and doesn’t envisage working as a gig worker for ever. In the short term, at least, it seems this job is safe from robot takeover.
drone take over?
Behind the Scenes
by Caroline Knight
We stepped out of the taxi into the throng of Northbridge, Perth, on a Friday night during the Fringe Festival and Chinese New Year. The impatient beeps from cars and the revving of motorbikes greeted us, alongside background tunes playing from various venues along the people lined streets. Large neon lights advertised various shows occurring across the city and excited festival goers were eagerly checking out the vast array of entertainment on offer.
I began to wonder if we were being a little optimistic to assume that amongst this busyness, we would find some suitably idle ‘gig workers’ willing to talk to us, some researchers from the University of Western Australia.
I needn’t have worried as we soon came across a gathering of young men standing next to scooters all bearing the large square, black bag, ubiquitously synonymous with Uber Eats.
The young men were cheerful and happy to spend their ‘downtime’ talking to us. We sat on the floor in a little cove outside a shop which was already closed. It was set back a bit from the road so we were out of the way of passers-by. This was an ideal spot for the gig workers as one of the restaurants they delivered food from was just next door and there were several others in the area. It was also a great spot for gig workers to watch their scooters, with scooter parking being available on the road in front of us. As we talked, the other gig workers sat about on their scooters chatting and admiring the sketches our Artist in Residence was producing. In many ways, it seemed the gig workers had created a nice little community for themselves.