Delivering justice to food deliverers
published : 24 May 2023 at 05:00
newspaper section: News
writer: Urairat Jantarasiri
Motorcycle riders in bright jackets weaving through traffic to deliver meals to their customers are a common sight on city streets. They are the workhorses of Thailand's booming gig economy. Yet they work without any basic labour rights or protection.
If accidents occur, they are on their own. And if they are sick, they might lose their jobs. Forget about minimum wage, paid sick leave, or other welfare protections. This is because these riders are still treated as "freelancers" and not employees by their food delivery platforms.
The riders are demanding fair treatment. Since they are bound by strict working rules similar to those that apply to regular employees, they believe they should receive the same protections and rights from their employers.
Although platform operators may give in to minor demands on a case-by-case basis, they refuse to fix the system and provide proper benefits to their riders. Despite numerous street demonstrations over the years, the riders remain trapped in high-risk jobs without legal rights or protection.
To protect their labour rights, the solution calls for government intervention.
Thanks to the expanding digital economy, the food delivery industry has experienced tremendous growth over the last ten years, particularly during the pandemic when demand was at an all-time high.
What riders face
At present, it is estimated that there are over 100,000 riders in the food delivery industry.
The riders' demands for better pay and working conditions are part of the longstanding structural problems in the industry that the food delivery platforms refuse to address.
The problems include the rigid rules on the riders' working hours and the number of deliveries, as well as the platforms' power to change the compensation system and lower their riders' fees without having to give the riders advance notice.
As a result of these stringent working conditions, the riders are no longer independent "freelancers" with flexible work hours. They have essentially become the platforms' employees, but without any legal protection or rights.
The operators' emphasis on profit is not solely the reason why the riders do not receive the rights and protection they deserve. Also to blame is the outdated labour law.
At present, the labour law ties the workers' rights and welfare benefits with their employment status, which is now divided into categories: employees and independent contractors. Only employees in the formal sector have legal protection.
The riders' problems stem from their jobs being defined as independent contractors, which does not accurately reflect their actual working conditions.
Although the food delivery platforms describe the riders as their "partners," Many stereotype the riders as independent contractors while their working conditions actually fall under the employer-employee relationships.
According to a 2022 study by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) on digital platform regulating guidelines, the majority of riders are under the working conditions similar to those of employees, such as working hours requirements, pay scales, and penalties for non-compliance. The riders' rights, however, are equal to or below those of independent contractors.
Despite repeated protests, the riders' demands have not been taken seriously. This is because theirs were mere impromptu protests with unequal bargaining power between the riders and platform operators. In the end, the riders, with much less negotiating power, are obliged to accept and comply with the operators' decisions.
Since the riders' levels of flexibility of riders vary, their working conditions and welfare must be different accordingly. According to a 2022 TDRI survey, the riders who are working full-time and relying mainly on this income want guaranteed minimum wages, accident insurance, and the ability to form unions. Meanwhile, the riders who work part-time only want health and accident insurance.
Therefore, the riders' welfare and rights should not be a one-size-fits-all package. Instead, it should be tailored to the nature of their work. As a rule, riders should receive increased protection based on the degree of the platforms' control over their working conditions. However, the government should set minimum labour protection standards to guarantee a fundamental safety net for all riders.
Firstly, financial compensation for losses incurred in work-related accidents. The platform operators must provide insurance coverage for third parties in any case, while they must take full responsibility for riders when they impose working conditions with higher risks.
Secondly, the food delivery platforms must acknowledge the riders' right to unionise. Thirdly, the platforms must assist the riders with the paperwork necessary to enrol in the social security system.
To meet these varied needs of riders, the government should set up mechanisms to encourage competition among the platforms, which will subsequently improve the advantages and protection for riders. For instance, platforms should be required to provide details on welfare benefits and working conditions so that riders can choose the option that offers better protection than minimum wage. Many platforms are now beginning to provide accident insurance coverage to riders who have completed the required work hours.
Additionally, the government should establish worker classification for determining the riders' employment status in order to provide the justice that riders who work for the platforms as employees deserve.
For instance, the riders must be treated as employees with legal rights and protection under the law if the platforms impose at least one of these following work rules: the length of time that riders must remain connected to the platform applications, the prohibition on accepting work from other platforms, the requirement that riders accept work as assigned, and the penalty for non-compliance.
To limit the platforms' potential to treat riders unfairly, authorities must determine their legal obligations and business practices. The government should mandate that they evaluate job dangers and task allocation algorithms and report to relevant authorities. Additionally, they should be required to notify riders at least seven days in advance of any changes to their employment terms or other agreements.
Attempts are now being made to push for a law that would provide freelance workers with legal protection. The draft "Promotion and Protection for Independent Workers Act B.E...." defines "semi-independent workers" to cover workers of digital platforms, including riders, and determines their various legal rights, such as the right to form a professional union and legal protection from being registered as independent workers, among other things.
It rests on the incoming administration to make the law to protect the rights of independent or freelance workers a reality. However, the one-size-fits-all law is unable to address various work circumstances and needs of riders. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the riders' opinions are taken into account during the legislative process so they can ultimately receive the proper rights and protection they deserve.
Urairat Jantarasiri is a senior researcher at the Thailand development research Institute. Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.