Uber Eats workers keep riding in Australia’s hazardous air with little support

Chemists and hardware stores across Australia are as the bushfire crisis continues. Thick smoke has blanketed major cities for weeks, with air quality reaching in some places. 

Sporting events and music festivals . Postal delivery in Australia’s capital of Canberra has been . State governments are advising people to , and urging employers to allow employees to either .

However, stopping work is simply not an option for some. Despite the dangerous conditions, people who rely on income from gig work are continuing to deliver food for companies such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo on bikes.

“I need money… I have to work,” Uber Eats rider Karina Sifuentes told Mashable. Sifuentes doesn’t have a mask, but doesn’t have another job either, so is forced to continue delivering food by bicycle in the smoke. “I try to work every day.”

She hasn’t received a mask from Uber Eats either. Uber Eats and Deliveroo, the two most popular food delivery services in Australia, have done little to support their riders other than sending health alerts and suggesting that the decision to work on particularly smoky days is up to the rider. It’s a stark reminder that in the gig economy, businesses still do the bare minimum to protect their workers.

The Australian government has advised the public to and try to cycle only when smoke levels are low.

According to preliminary results of a by three Australian universities, 15.4 percent of gig workers consider the income vital for meeting their basic needs. Those most likely to say this include people who have a disability, people who are unemployed, and people doing delivery work.

“According to these findings, many Australians are relying on gig work to make a living,” Victorian Minister for Industrial Relations Tim Pallas said in a . “It’s crucial these workers have the right to fair pay and safe working conditions.”

Unfortunately, air pollution means simply being outside in an Australian city can be unsafe right now.

“Food delivery riders in Sydney and Melbourne have two options: work in hazardous conditions, or earn no money,” Transport Workers’ Union National Secretary Michael Kaine said in a statement to Mashable. “This is not a choice anyone should have to make.”

In the same month the survey’s preliminary results were released, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman found that Uber drivers are rather than employees. The result of this is that gig workers are not entitled to minimum wage, superannuation, or sick leave. As Kaine pointed out, this leaves some people with “little means to save for such occasions as being unable to work.”

While California recently passed a law mandating that gig workers be treated as employees, such classification is rare among the territories where Uber operates. The company is also taking steps to reclassify its Californian workers.

Neither Uber Eats nor Deliveroo have indicated any plans to halt their services during the ongoing air hazard. Instead, both have sent updates to their riders telling them to consider the air quality before working, largely leaving assessment of working conditions to the workers. 

“We have been sharing important information with delivery partners about bushfire smoke and health, and are encouraging them to consider this before going online to deliver,” an Uber spokesperson told Mashable via email. This information consists of shared factsheets from NSW Health and directions to visit the website.

Deliveroo is also monitoring air quality in affected cities, and has “urged riders not to log in if they feel unsafe and to take extra care operating in affected zones.” 

“We will continue to assess the situation and provide up-to-date weather and air quality information to riders,” Deliveroo wrote in a statement to Mashable. 

The company further said there will be no consequences if a rider chooses not to work in an impacted area, and that it is “making proactive calls to riders in the hardest-hit zones to check on how they are feeling and to ensure that they are aware they do not need to login unless they want to.”

“Rider safety is of paramount importance to Deliveroo and we take every measure to ensure a safe and secure environment.”

Mashable did not receive a response from DoorDash or Easi, but TWU’s Philippa Hatton advised that neither have shared any advice with their workers.

Though Uber Eats and Deliveroo are trying to keep workers informed, some feel these companies could be doing more.

“The only thing that they do is send you a message, but maybe they should give you a mask or take another precaution,” Uber Eats delivery worker Cintia Guerrini told Mashable. Guerrini has received Uber Eats’ messages regarding air quality, but has continued to work because she “need[s] the money.” 

“For example, today I received this message from Uber Eats that I have to consider air quality before going on delivery, but I work anyway,” said Guerrini. “I think that no, smoke is not good for health, but there are a lot of things that are not good. For example, smoking cigarettes is not good, and I smoke.”

Delivery rider Bibek Sunar also told Mashable he thought Uber Eats could provide masks. “Like they used to provide us the [insulated delivery] bags, like that they can provide us the safety gear,” he said. 

Sunar stopped working for a few days when the air was particularly hazardous, but now continues to deliver in the smoke without a mask. Like the majority of delivery riders Mashable spoke to, he does not have another job. “I have to get some money for my expenses,” said Sunar. 

Kaine dismissed Uber and Deliveroo’s responses as “regurgitated government alerts,” declaring that this simply isn’t good enough. 

Neither company has altered its approach to the air pollution since a report in early December, despite the prolonged hazard. 

“This shortsighted advice is all well and good only if you can afford to keep the roof over your head,” said Kaine in a statement to Mashable. “Companies are failing their workers by refusing to provide safety equipment such as masks, or offering financial support for riders who are unable to work for health and safety reasons.”

The alerts also aren’t necessarily getting the message across and protecting riders. Benjamin Zorro, an Uber Eats delivery rider who has been working in the smoke “almost every day”, told Mashable he believed the smoke was only dangerous for pregnant or elderly people. “For people who are in good shape, it’s not dangerous,” said Zorro.

In actuality, the has warned that prolonged exposure to the smoke can cause even healthy people to develop serious illnesses.

Zorro told Mashable he thought Uber Eats could increase the amount it paid to delivery people so they wouldn’t have to work in the smoke for as long. However, the company doesn’t seem to have any such plans. Deliveroo also told Mashable that it “will never offer an incentive in response to a warning around air quality.”

This is understandable to some extent, as higher pay may prompt people to deliver in the smoke when they otherwise wouldn’t. Though hazard pay does exist in other industries, researchers such as Dr. Robert Hughes have questioned the ethics of offering it at all

However, Hughes makes an exception for workers who need hazard pay in order to meet their basic needs. “[A] job offer that includes explicit or implicit hazard pay is morally acceptable…[if] taking the hazard pay is necessary to bring about a very great good, such as employees’ survival,” he wrote in Business Ethics Quarterly.

Not offering higher pay in hazardous conditions leaves those who need to continue earning exposed to those conditions for longer. According to Guerrini, work in January has been slow since many potential customers are still on holiday. 

“For example, [I’ve earned] $25 and I started three hours ago,” Guerrini said, showing Mashable the total in her app. (Australia’s national minimum wage is $19.49 per hour.) “It’s not good, but it’s money.”

In response to the dangerous air conditions, some Australians are tipping delivery people who brave the smoke. Australia does not have a tipping culture, so gestures such as these aren’t the norm.

But though they’re struggling through the smoke, many food delivery riders are still thinking of those most directly impacted by Australia’s bushfires. 

Asked if he had any other concerns, Sunar requested that people to Australia’s firefighters and those affected by the fires, adding that he had already done so.

“I hope that the fires finish soon,” said Guerrini.

source.