Several fatal traffic accidents involving food delivery couriers has brought the lack of protection for them to the public’s awareness.
The Ministry of Labor has said that the food delivery platform operators’ contracts require delivery workers to report to the company if they cannot work during their assigned shifts, wear company uniforms during working hours, use a standardized delivery box bearing the company’s logo and place company logo stickers on their scooters.
The ministry therefore concluded that platform operators maintain a certain degree of control and supervision over couriers, and that there is a subordinate relationship between the two. The ministry determined that there is an employer-employee relationship between platform operators and their delivery workers.
However, after the ministry’s announcement, one platform operator immediately released a statement saying that it was in a contract relationship rather than an employment relationship.
The company said that digital platforms allow workers to make use of idle time by taking a flexible part-time job, and that this is a new kind of labor demand that fits the legal requirements for a contractual relationship.
People working part-time jobs either receive hourly wages or are paid per job, neither of which is full-time employment and both belong to the trending “gig economy,” which is changing the relationship between workers and employers.
This is a controversy that is appearing all over the world due to ever-changing online and mobile phone applications.
A study released by PricewaterhouseCoopers Belgium in April found that topics related to the “gig economy,” such as whether Uber drivers are recognized as employees of Uber Technologies, have been the subject of much controversy in EU member states.
While most of EU states still resort to traditional labor legislation to resolve these issues, only three countries have come up with a third kind of legal relationship between employment relations and contract relations.
This third option is so-called “gig workers,” a concept being promoted in Taiwan. The question is if the problems created by the rising number of “digital employers” can be effectively solved simply by changing the definition of what constitutes an employee.
In 2017, Finland started a two-year basic income experiment, a concept that differs from minimum wage. In the experiment, which included a randomly selected group of 2,000 young people, any unemployed citizen would receive a basic income of 560 euros (US$616.59) per month.
Unlike the unemployment benefits in place in Taiwan, which deems a recipient disqualified for the benefits once they start a part-time job, participants in the experiment can still work part-time. If the scope were expanded, homemakers could also receive a basic income from the government.
The experiment has been interpreted as a way to provide a solution to the potential unemployment problem that could be created by artificial intelligence (AI) automation. If employers can rely on AI to direct robots for manufacturing and production, labor demand would drop and the labor force would become an unnecessary production factor. By that time, how would most workers be able to make a living?
One solution is to use the power of governments and even international organizations to redistribute wealth by imposing taxes on capital gains to raise hourly wages or directly distribute tax revenue to people without employment opportunities. The latter would be what is called “universal basic income.”
If a gig economy worker working part-time for a food delivery platform is involved in a traffic accident and becomes unable to work for a long period of time, they would not have to worry about medical costs, because the National Health Insurance program could help cover expenses even when the worker is in a contractual relationship with the platform.
What about their living expenses? Only a universal basic income provided by the government in a manner similar to the insurance program would be able to help a disabled part-time worker maintain their standard of living.
There are groups worldwide, including in Taiwan, advocating a universal basic income. Maintaining a basic living without having to work seems to be a utopian idea and funding remains a difficulty that seems impossible to overcome. Some people have even criticized the proposal, saying that it would encourage people to “reap without sowing.”
As AI automation is coming into full swing, how to establish a tighter social security net using reasonable wealth redistribution is a problem that will become necessary to address. If it is not, the increasing number of workers who fall through the net will inevitably launch a counterattack against the rich and the AI army they created, further shattering social peace.
Yang Cheming is a professor at Taipei Medical University’s School of Healthcare Administration.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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