Originally published in Women's Agenda on January 23, 2024

Unless minimum employment standards for care and support workers using digital labour platforms are guaranteed, decades of slow progress towards proper recognition of care work and equal pay for women could be undone.

Australia risks returning to the days when the value of a female care worker’s effort and their working conditions were largely determined in private, informal relationships out of sight and out of the scope of regulation that protects most other workers.

For most of the 20th Century, women workers providing care and assistance to people in private residences were explicitly excluded from the industrial relations system that ensured rights and standards, including minimum wages and employment conditions, for 90 per cent of Australian workers.

Homecare and other social and community services workers were only recognised as workers at the end of the century, after long and enormously difficult struggles by women and their unions.

Finally, in the 1990s, for the first time, care and support workers gained regulated minimum standards of pay and conditions. Previously, as unregulated workers, they had extremely low pay rates and some of the worst working conditions in Australia.

Fast forward thirty years to 2024. The care and support workforce is still highly feminised. It is large and it is growing 3 times faster than other sectors in the Australian economy. Most care and support jobs are still relatively low-paid and insecure.

Today, however, the need for fair pay, better quality jobs, and career paths for care and support workers has the attention of government and other policy makers. In the wake of the pandemic there is greater appreciation of how the quality of these jobs impacts on the quality of care and support for the aged and people with disability.

And it is very clear that, if we are to successfully tackle Australia’s gender pay gap and women’s economic inequality, we must ensure better pay and career pathways for care and support workers.

But now, digital or ‘gig’ labour platforms are undermining the slow progress that has been made towards proper recognition and valuing of care work. This is because most platforms, through which aged care and disability support workers connect with people requiring care and support, insist that workers are independent contractors.

Platforms compete in the NDIS and aged care markets by using independent contractors to provide cheaper services, while other service providers directly employ workers. Platforms profit from avoiding the costs of employment, including superannuation, training and supervision. Platform workers have no minimum employment standards.

Digital platform care and support workers have a lot in common with previous care and domestic workers who, for most of the 20th Century, were invisible and isolated, and struggled to have their labour recognised as work.

Platform workers are without any rights to minimum rates of pay, working time standards, superannuation or other benefits and protections they would have as employees. They mostly perform their labour without peer support, organisational supervision and training, and they are cut off from opportunities for development and promotion.

Opponents of employment standards for platform care and support workers don’t see it like this. They argue standards are not needed as workers are “entrepreneurs” who set their own rates, earn more than employees, enjoy the flexibility of working when and where they want, and are doing this work as a “side hustle” on top of more substantial jobs.

None of this is true of the majority of care and support workers on platforms. Most (70 per cent) believe they are employees of the platform, even though they’re not. Even the platforms’ own data shows that workers from groups likely to be vulnerable to exploitation – migrants and younger workers – are over-represented on platforms. Many workers are paid below the relevant award minimum pay rate.

It makes little sense to refer to jobs as side hustles when 4 out of 5 home and community-based care and support jobs (on and off platforms) are part-time, often short-hours jobs.

Just because jobs are part-time, or a worker holds multiple jobs, doesn’t mean fair pay and working conditions don’t matter.

For decades, women had to put up with undervalued work while employers, economists and public policy makers argued women worked in care jobs for love rather than money, and their earnings were not essential income. Present-day arguments opposing minimum standards are a little different, however, they would achieve the same end, perpetuating undervaluation and gender inequality.

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