‘The way they manipulate people is really saddening’: study shows the trade-offs in gig work

Uber Gig workers saw their work as  
flexible but also with its risks. Reynaldo Vasconcelos/Newzulu/AAP

Uber driver Michelle, thinks her job is fantastic when she’s only after part-time hours. But she’s given it a couple of months and she says she’s not getting anywhere.

To be able to earn A$800 she has to actually pull in A$1,500, averaging 70 hours a week. The money per hour can be good, but only when it really picks up. Looking at the current job market, she doesn’t want to do two full-time jobs to make the same amount of money that she used to earn in an office, working half the time.

She feels exhausted. She used to think people in Melbourne were good drivers, but now that she’s been driving all day, she sees a fair amount of aggression. Six weeks ago she was trying to merge into traffic and a man in a ute next to her showed her a crowbar.

Her latest day off she spent sleeping because she was so tired.

Michelle (not her real name) was one of our study participants. We interviewed 60 ridesharing and food delivery workers like her. And the reality of their experiences is far more nuanced than others make out.

Work in the “gig economy” is often depicted as flexible by businesses and those who run the platforms that offer work, or as exploitative by labour activists and commentators.

A key finding is that gig workers arbitrate between the costs and benefits of gig work. Many interviewees preferred their gig work over other forms of low-paid work (most commonly cleaning, hospitality, retail) because of abusive bosses, underpayment, and underemployment. In comparison, gig work is seen by these workers as providing a more appealing work environment.

While some rideshare drivers note they need to work long hours to earn the equivalent of a full-time wage, they also emphasise their enjoyment of their rideshare work. One food delivery worker summed it up:

It is more flexible. You can do whatever you want. You are on the street talking to the people enjoying. You can do exercise as well on the bicycle. And, it is good money.

Despite these workers’ sense that there are opportunities in gig work – their experience was not overwhelmingly positive. There was a group of workers who felt marginalised, had few choices, and the gig work was a last resort.

These workers saw gig work as a stopgap measure while they looked for “real” jobs. In these cases they were doing it because it got them out of the house, to supplement their income or before starting their own business.

Social versus isolating

The workers in the study saw social interactions as part of their gig work as one of the more enjoyable aspects. What varied between rideshare and food delivery workers was how these interactions took place.

Food delivery drivers often end up crossing paths during their shifts and informally waiting together. As one worker summed up:

You end up knowing most of the riders, because you see them pretty often. You kind of speak with each other, and there is a social club.

By contrast rideshare drivers noted that their work could be quite physically isolating. Some drivers engaged in online forums with other drivers but would never meet up with them. Despite limited social interaction with other drivers, rideshare drivers reported that this is where they derived most of their job satisfaction.

Freedom versus control

The drivers we interviewed expressed a sense of freedom and flexibility because they had “no boss, no set hours”. However, the flip side of this was a sense of limited control over work. As one food delivery worker described:

I currently fit my life around their work…obviously I have to work around busy times – lunch and dinnertime.

Both delivery riders and rideshare drivers – found that only particular pockets of time across the day were profitable. This was usually lunch and dinner times, especially weekends for food delivery, and weekends and evenings for rideshare drivers. So while their options to sign on or off the app (the platform that employed them) were flexible, realistically their productive working hours were determined by patterns of consumer demand.

Both the rideshare and food delivery platforms also unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of engagement, which directly affected earning potential. Both groups of workers expressed particular concern about the periodic increases in the commission taken by the platform, reporting cuts to earnings of up to 15%. One driver lamented:

The way they [the platform] manipulate people….is really saddening.

Ridesharing workers were also concerned about being financially over-committed due to the cost associated with purchasing and running a vehicle. This financial burden, coupled with continued changing rules of game, and the capacity for these platforms to arbitrarily “deactivate them” led to anxiety and frustration. One worker described this:

It used to be good before they did all the price cuts and started treating their drivers like trash. We have had 30% cuts since I came on board whilst demand hasn’t matched supply. I make around $10 an hour.

Best of a bad lot

Our emerging findings suggest gig workers often understand the trade-offs between the positive and negative features of their work but see this as a reality of their position within the labour market.

A number of our interviewees felt exploited and/or would prefer better paying “real jobs”, validating the concern on regulation, pay and conditions in this industry. But, gig work allows these workers to meet their immediate needs and gives them a sense of being their own boss.

The gig workers enjoyed the high levels of autonomy in their work, and many of them saw their gigs as the best in a market characterised by low paid jobs.

This article was co-authored by:





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

The new space race: why we need a human mission to Mars

Why-we-need-a-mission-to-MarsA view from the ‘Kimberley’  
formation on Mars taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover.The strata in the fore- 
ground dip towards the base of Mount Sharp,indicating flow of water toward a 
basin that existed before the larger bulk of the mountain formed. 

If we want to know whether there is life beyond Earth then the quickest way to answer that question is to explore Mars. That exploration is currently being done by remote space probes sent from Earth.

The race is on though to send human explorers to Mars and a number of Earth-bound projects are trying to learn what life would be like on the red planet.

But the notion of any one-way human mission to Mars is nonsensical, as is the thought that we should colonise Mars simply because we are making a mess of Earth.

The first suggestion is pointless and unethical – we would be sending astronauts to their certain death – while the second would be a licence for us to continue polluting our home planet.

I believe we should go to Mars because of what we can learn from the red planet, and from developing the technologies to get people there safely.

The SpaceX entrepreneur Elon Musk last September outlined his vision for a mission to send people to Mars by 2022. But first he is planning to send people around the Moon.

Fly me to the moon … Okhttp://www.spacex.com/news/2017/02/27/spacex-send-privately-crewed-dragon-spacecraft-beyond-moon-next-year 
Photo published for SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year
SpaceX to Send Privately Crewed Dragon Spacecraft Beyond the Moon Next Year
We are excited to announce that SpaceX has been approached to fly two private citizens on a trip around the Moon late next year. They have already paid a significant deposit to do a Moon mission….



I think Musk will send two space tourists around the Moon and back to Earth, not in 2018 as he has predicted, but probably within a decade. He has not yet experimented with having passengers aboard a rocket.

Our journey into space

It’s worth looking at how we got to where we are now in terms of humans in space and space exploration.

Image of the first footprint on the moon
More than a billion people watched Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong take humankind’s first step on another world. NASA

The first footprint on another world was made by US astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 (US time) when he left the Eagle lunar lander and stepped onto the Moon.

One small step…

The Moon is as far as humans have explored in space but we’ve sent probes to explore the other planets in our Solar system, including Mars.

Several failed attempts were made to send a probe to Mars but the US Mariner 4 was the first to successfully photograph another planet from space when it made a flyby of Mars in July 1965.

Image of Mars
The red planet Mars. NASA

The USSR’s Mars 2 orbited Mars for three months in 1971 but its lander module crashed onto the planet. The lander of the Mars 3 mission also failed.

NASA’s Viking 1 performed the first successful landing on Mars, on July 20, 1976, followed by Viking 2 on September 3, 1976.


Image of the dunes of Mars as seen by Viking 1.
The dunes of Mars as seen by Viking 1. NASA/JPL

The Viking missions were the first to search for life on that planet, since when others such as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed days apart in January 2004, have looked to see if Mars could have had life in the past.

No evidence of life has been found so far, but the techniques available now are far more advanced and we know much more about the planet. We do have abundant evidence of water on Mars.

The benefits of space exploration

Apart from looking for life, why bother with a mission to send humans to Mars? Many aspects of our modern lives would not be possible if it were not for our interest in space.

We rely on satellites for communication, timing and positioning. Satellites help to keep us safe from severe weather, especially in Australia.

The Apollo and other NASA missions led to developments in micro-electronincs that later made it into household devices such as calculators and home computers.

NASA has detailed many of the spinoffs it says stem from its research for exploration of space, which even include the dustbuster.


Image of the modern household dustbuster
The modern household dustbuster has its origins in the Apollo Moon missions. Shutterstock/Sergey Mironov

Intangible, but critical nonetheless, is the inspiration we derive from space exploration. It can be very significant in attracting young people to science and engineering, something needed more and more as our economies continue to transition to an ever higher-tech future.

In the US there was a large spike in tertiary enrolments in science and engineering during the Apollo missions to the Moon.

A new space race

We are using more and more sophisticated craft to explore Mars. It is a broadly international venture involving NASA, the European Space Agency (22 member nations), the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the China National Space Administration, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

We are witnessing not only collaboration but competition. Which nation (or company?) will first return to the Moon and then land astronauts on Mars? It is beginning to look like a new space race.

Why focus on Mars? We already know that early in its history, more than three billion years ago, Mars had a surface environment much like that of Earth at the same time, featuring volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, and perhaps even an ocean in the northern hemisphere.

This animation shows how the surface of Mars might have appeared billions of years ago.

Life on Earth then was microbial, the evidence for which is preserved in 3.5 billion year old rocks in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

So we are searching for microbes on Mars. Despite being microscopic, bacteria and their cousins the Archaea are complex organisms. Methane already discovered in the atmosphere of Mars hints at the presence of such life but is not definitive.

If there ever was life on Mars it may still be there, underground where it will be protected from cosmic and ultraviolet radiation. From time to time it might emerge on the surface in some of the gullies that seem to result from the breaching of underground aquifers.

It might not seem exciting to discover former or living microbes, but if we can demonstrate that they represent an independent origin of life the consequences will be profound.

We will be able to predict confidently that there will be life all over the universe. Somewhere out there will be intelligent beings. What might happen then currently lies in the realm of science fiction.

The future lies in more missions to Mars. So far all missions have been one-way and robotic, but plans are underway for a mission to return samples from Mars, and sometime this century there will be astronauts on Mars, not in “colonies” but in research bases like those in Antarctica. It is inevitable.

This article was written by:
Image of Malcolm WalterMalcolm Walter – [Professor of Astrobiology, UNSW]





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation


Running Out of Space: World Faces Data Storage Shortage

dna storage data backup

Big data is touted to transform the future of information technology.

However, there is a likelihood that we will lack space even considering options such as the artificial DNA.

The amount of new data that is created on a yearly basis worldwide is expected to explode by over ten times in the next decade. At the same time, the current trend shows that people fill their hard drives, smartphones, USB drives with tens of thousands of personal documents and photos.

Besides, organisations also have many documents to store. Scientists predict that if the current trend persists, the world will run out of storage space in the next 181 years – even if we were to use every atom available to store data.

The Relevance of Effective Data Storage Solutions

Data storage is one sensitive area that organisations value.

In information technology, information storage is divided into data storage and file storage. File storage comprises of documents and files in attachments while data storage includes accounts, emails, contracts and custom objects.

One of the most widespread problems that companies run into is exceeding data storage limits.

Sometimes, companies offering data storage solutions give notifications pointing that the data storage limits have been exceeded. That usually includes the extra overflow buffers. In these cases, the companies have terms and conditions that are against the additional data creation until there are reductions in the current data storage.

Given this predicament, there are losses in data that are bound to be encountered if the contracting companies will have to keep on enjoying storage services.

Unfortunately, the users might be denied access to some files or these files can be deleted. If the user operates in an industry that is very sensitive, that means that performance goes down. Furthermore, there will be suspicions about the organisation’s reliability to handle classified data.

Technology Card Storage Digital Flash Data Sd

Potential Solutions to Data Storage Limitations

1. Clearing Memory

One of the most-effective solutions that might help an organisation or a user to avoid reaching the data limits is deleting some files that are less significant – which is almost impossible given that many files are relevant.

To add on – making local backups that can offer more space for data archiving is another possible solution. Additionally, the users can opt to purchase extra storage.

Mr Pititto, at The Original PC Doctor states, “be cautious when backing up and restoring data. If you do experience data loss, never restore the backup to the same machine where you lost the previous data”.

2. Cloud Storage

Due to the exponential growth of data, companies can upgrade to cloud storage. The advantage is that cloud storage is flexible and scalable. Users can acquire more storage while accessing more features without disrupting the workflow.

Therefore they will be able to avoid downtime. Some of the best cloud solutions include the pay-as-you-go model, such as Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure Cloud  and Amazon S3

3. Edge Computing

The other solution in data storage lies in edge computing. Users will be able to use an architectural model that enables them to gain access to the cloud while keeping latency low and maintaining performance.

The design offers cloud economics allowing users to avoid incurring cloud access costs.

The storage management will require technology providers to implement the infrastructure that can be shared to prevent problems of having to buy hardware storage devices.

DNA Data Storage

Looking Forward

The interventions mentioned above could be effective in the short-term. They need to be implemented consistently for maximum performance.

However, the prospect that could revolutionise data storage is the possibility of encoding digital data in DNA. The rationale is creating a system that enables high-density large scale data packing.

The only challenge is that it could be capital intensive to create the storage cells.


Anita Cobby was the young beautiful nurse at the centre of a crime, so horrific that it changed the nations attitude towards justice, punishment and parole forever.  And 30 years ago today, Anita Cobby’s five brutal killers were each sentenced to life in prison, never to be released.

The story of Anita Cobby has been remembered as one of the most horrifying and violent crimes ever perpetrated in Australia’s history. The violent nature of the crime shocked most Australians, united in public outrage. Through public opinion , this case had a nation pushing for the death penalty to be introduced into the Australian Justice System. As a compromise the judge passed five life sentences, all certified “never to be released”.

Anita Lorraine Lynch was born 2 November 1959. A former beauty pageant winner, Lynch decided to spend the rest of her life caring for others as an Australian Registered Nurse. She met her future husband John Cobby whilst studying for her nursing degree. They married in 1982, though at the time of her disappearance, she the couple were separated and Cobby was living with her parents in Blacktown, NSW.

John Raymond Travers was born 27 February, 1967. The oldest of eight children, Travers had a history of violence and was well known to the police.

At the age of 13, he was caught using marijuana and by 14 years old, was a uncontrollable alcoholic. He often carried an knife for protection, and had many altercations with the police over the years for various criminal activities. His parents had little or no control over him and often feared for their own lives.

Travers was expelled from High School (year 10) for being continually disruptive in class and fighting with other students. Beyond school, he secured various jobs, but never held onto them. He preferred to claim unemployment benefits as a means of getting by.

His mother found it increasingly difficult to handle her son, so she had him committed to a Boys Town Juvenile detention facility. In 1981, Travers father Ken, whom he never had a close relationship with, decided to pack up and leave the family, leaving his son Travers as head of the family. Finding it increasingly difficult to care for the whole family on his own, he turned to crime as a means of survival.

His mothers health began to deteriorate quite rapidly, so whilst she was hospitalized, he and his siblings were all sent to live with foster families.

Travers was also known to display extreme cruelty to animals from an early age, a common trait of serial killers. It was a known fact that Travers would get a huge high from having sex with animals he stole from peoples backyards, before slitting their throats.


Anita had just completed her shift at a Sydney Hospital around 3.00pm on the afternoon of 2 February 1967, when she darted off to meet up with friends for dinner. After dinner she caught a train from Central Station to Blacktown station. Aside from her killers, only two other people can verify seeing her as she got off the train. These two people, a brother and a sister were about to become key witnesses as they watched the abduction take place.

Anita was walking alone along Newton Road, Blacktown around 10pm, when the gang of five youths drove up alongside her and stopped their stolen Holden Kingswood. Two men leaped from the car, dragging Anita kicking and screaming into the car. The young boy who witnessed all, attempted to chase after the car.

She was ordered to strip off her clothes but refused, begging her attackers to let her go, saying she was married and that she was menstruating. Her attackers continued to punch Anita repeatedly, then drove to a service station to purchase fuel using money stolen from Anita’s purse. She was then driven to a secluded paddock, while being held down in the car and raped and beaten by her five attackers.

When Anita didn’t come home, Garry and Grace Lynch assumed that Anita had decided to stay at one of her girlfriends after dinner when she had not called to be picked up at Blacktown Station by 10.30pm so they retired to bed.

The following morning however, changed their lives forever. Sister Jolly from Anita’s work called looking for her as she had failed to turn up for work. After many frantic calls to her friends, her anxious parents quickly drove to the Blacktown Police Station and filled out a missing persons report.

Early Tuesday morning, Anita’s sister Kathryn and her husband Ray arrived at the family home to lend support. John Cobby, Anita’s estranged husband also did his part, in calling all her known girlfriends to see if they had seen or heard from her.

At the same time, Det. Sgt, Graham Rosette and Snr. Const. Hugh Dundas were on there way to meet with 3 uniformed police, cordoning off an area down a dirt backroad. The two men were immediately briefed on a gruesome discovery. A young woman had been found dead in a paddock. She was between 18 – 30 and there was incredible loss of blood. The only item they had to use for identification was a Russian wedding ring still attached to her finger.

Farmer Reen sees his cows gathering around an object in his paddock in Prospect. He goes to investigate the object to be shocked to see it is a female body. Reen calls the police and they arrive shortly

The woman’s brutalized body lay stomach and face down on the ground. Her left arm was under her body and her right arm under her head. Her eyes were still open, vacant and staring. The cuts to her throat were clearly visible even though she was face down.

Det. Sgt. Ian Kennedy removed the ring and placed it into a plastic bag, taking particular care not to damage any evidence that can be found on the body or the ring. He was sure the body they had found, belonged to Anita.

Det. Sgt. Kennedy then proceeded to the Lynch house to see if they could verify the ring. As he held up the bag containing the ring, Kathryn said it looked like one Anita wore.

At around the same time, the story had just broke on the news. John Cobby immediately called the family and the Det. Sgt. Broke the news to him too.

It would be Anita’s father Gary Lynch who would have to brave the Westmead Hospital Mortuary, enduring the agony of identifying his daughters brutalized body.

A media frenzy erupted, with both press and locals parking themselves on the steps of the Blacktown Police Station. Here they demanded answers and called for the police to act swiftly in an attempt to stop them re-offending.

A week after Anita’s murder, the police set up a re-enactment of Anita’s last known movements as she boarded the train from Central to Blacktown. The media filmed the event and it was televised in the hope witnesses would come forward with vital information, which would lead to the apprehension of these murderers.

The police then received a call from someone following up on a call they had made the night of Anita’s abduction. A male named Paul and his female companion had witnessed a woman being dragged into a white and grey Holden Commodore at around 9.50pm. Paul chose to run up to the car to offer help to the young woman, but the car sped off. When he returned home that night, he told his older brother John McGaughey. McGaughey decided to drive around to see if they could spot the car in question and then they would ring the police. They drove down the desolate road where Anita would later be found, oblivious to what had just transpired in the area. They saw an empty vehicle and stopped next to it, however on a closer inspection, saw it did not match the model his younger brother described in great detail, so they continued on.

It would later be confirmed as the right car, and unbeknown to McGaughey at the time, Anita was only meters away being raped and murdered.

On Monday 10 February, Anita’s body was laid to rest.

Australia was outraged. Polls were done on the reintroduction of capital punishment with the majority of people in favour.

Then a break came in the case.

Following a tip-off from a police informant regarding a stolen vehicle, the police went on the hunt for John Travers, Michael Murdoch and the 3 Murphy brothers.

On 21 February, all were found and arrested. Murdoch and the Murphy brothers were charged with offences relating to stolen cars and released on bail whilst Travers who had admitted he stole a car, had made conflicting statements about the murder, so he was detained in police custody.

Whilst in custody, Travers asked that he be able to make a call to a female friend so she could bring him cigarettes. It was this simple request that would be his downfall. The phone number was handed on to a police member who then made the call on his behalf. The woman was terrified of Travers, and agreed to help with the investigation by meeting with the police officer and giving him a detailed insight into Travers sadistic and violent background.

For her own protection, the woman became Mrs X. She agreed to meet with Travers and he openly discussed the events of that fateful night.

She relayed this information to the police, but it wasn’t enough to get a conviction. They decided to wire her on her next visit and see if she could get him to talk again. He wrongly thought that Miss X admired him. Many times in the past he had confided in her, and she always made out that she was fascinated with his stories. Mrs X, due to her bravery and co-operation was able to get a detailed confession to the crime, all recorded and later used as evidence.

The circumstances that unfolded that night went something like this”-

Anita had just got of the train at Blacktown at around 10pm and proceeded to walk along Newton Road, when a gang of five men drove up alongside her and stopped their stolen Holden Kingswood. Two men jumped from the car, and grabbed Anita, dragging her kicking and screaming into the car. Once in the car, Anita was order to remove her clothes but she refused, begging her attackers to let her go, saying she was married and was menstruating.

Throughout her whole ordeal in the back of that car, Anita endured continuous punching, strangling, stabbing and sexual assault as they removed her clothing. Anita put up a courageous fight against her attackers, but sadly she was outnumbered and over powered.

Her attackers then drove to a service station to purchase fuel using money stolen from Anita’s purse. By this time she was semi conscious and they gagged her to ensure she didn’t draw attention to them. She was then driven to a secluded paddock, and dragged from the car over a barbed wire fence naked whilst her semi conscious body was spat on, tortured, kicked, punched, raped both vaginally and anally and beaten again, even breaking her knuckles and fingers.

They would talk about whether to let her go, or what should happen and it was decided that as she had heard their names, they would have to kill her.

Anita pleaded with her attackers to let her go, but she had seen them and they could be identified. They had to get rid of her for good. After all she had endured, she finally found peace in death. Her attacker Travers sat on her back and grabbed a fistful of her hair and forced her head back. As she raised he hand to stop the knife reaching her throat, Travers nearly removed he fingers with it. Still semi-conscious she pleaded for her life. Then with one fast slash to the throat, it was all over,  killing Anita instantly. They then abandoned her lifeless naked body.

They then took Anita’s clothing back to Traver’s home where they set about destroying all the evidence. They burnt all her belongings and then disposed of the ashes. They then drove the stolen vehicle to bushland and dumped it.

Following a tip-off from a police informant regarding a stolen vehicle, the police started to search for John Travers, Michael Murdoch and the three Murphy brothers, Michael, Gary and Leslie. It was during their questioning of the men that the police discovered that some of them had a history of violence and Traver’s had a tendancy to carry a knife everywhere he went.

On the 21 February, the police arrested Travers, Murdoch and Les Murphy.

Murdoch and Murphy were charged with offences relating to the theft of stolen cars and allowed bail, but placed on 24 hour surveylance. Travers, who admitted to stealing a car, had also made conflicting statements about the murder, so he was detained.

It was whilst in custody, Travers asked that a female friend be contacted to bring him some cigarettes. A phone number was passed onto the police officer and he made the call. The woman later known as Mrs X, for her own protection, told the police she feared Travers. She gave them a huge insight into his background of crime and brutality. After meeting with Travers, he confessed the crime to her. She returned to the police and told them everything, but it wasn’t enough to get a conviction. They needed concrete evidence, so they asked her if she would agree to being wired with her next visit. If she would agree to try and get him to talk once again in full detail about his involvement in the Cobby case. Mrs X, very bravely agreed to assist the police one more time.

It worked, and a full confession was recorded.

After Travers confession, all five men were arrested and charged with murder. Police were praised for their quick response in capturing all suspects within a 22 day timefame.

All five men were later convicted of Anita’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, NEVER TO BE RELEASED.

The trial began in Sydney on 16 March, 1987, however before proceedings began, Travers changed his plea to guilty.

As they all sat in the docks awaiting the verdict, they laughed and giggled, showing no signs of remorse.

As Justice Alan Maxwell handed own sentencing, he described the crime as

One of the most horrifying physical and sexual assaults. This was a calculated killing done in cold blood. The Executive should grant the same degree of mercy they bestowed on their victim.”

Since Anita’s death a park in Sullivan Street, Blacktown was named Anita Cobby Reserve in memory of a woman who dedicated her life, to helping the sick and injured.

Her family founded “The Victims of Homicide Support Group” a community support group that helps families deal with the aftermath of such heinous crimes. They also set about campaigning for tougher laws and sentencing for such crimes.

In Sept, 2008, Anita’s father Garry Lynch joined her at age 90, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.


Grattan on Friday: The Finkel plan will test Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to deliver significant reform

Grattan-on-Friday--The-Finkel-plan Turnbull takes heart from the widespread acceptance 
that things can’t stay as they are. Mick Tsikas/AAP

For Malcolm Turnbull, implementing the Finkel plan for energy security – or a credible form of it – is a legacy issue, as well as one that goes to the heart of his prime ministerial authority.

On the basis of the polls, this could well be Turnbull’s last term. So his attention must be turning to what he would leave behind for the writers of political history.

Much of Turnbull’s prime ministership so far has been consumed with “biffo” politics, a function of a ruthless and effective opposition, a difficult Senate, a bad 2016 election result and, it must be said, his failure to know what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it.

The government can point to its industrial relations laws, childcare overhaul, and cutbacks of superannuation concessions. Still, it has spent little time in the sunny uplands of bold and lasting policy reform. Indeed, a good deal of policy has been driven by negatives, such as the progressive toughening of security laws in response to the terrorist threat.

If the government manages to get its schools package through the Senate next week, it will have put that funding onto a needs basis along proper Gonski lines, which will be a solid reform.

But the Finkel plan is of a different order for Turnbull. Climate change has long been a core issue for him; famously, his attempts to forge a deal with the Rudd government on an emissions trading scheme triggered his 2009 loss of the opposition leadership.

To implement an alternative that still effectively puts a price on emissions might – apart from its policy advantages – be seen by Turnbull as righting the old wrong done to him by his party. The issue would have come full circle.

This week’s Coalition partyroom debate on Finkel was something of a shock to ministers, because of the degree of scepticism from MPs. But it wasn’t as bad for Turnbull as initial media reports suggested.

Rather, it signalled two things: that Turnbull, as he pushes ahead, must carefully manage his backbenchers – who are focused centrally on the question of affordability – and that compromises on “pure” Finkel will have to be made.

A week after the release of the Finkel panel’s report, Turnbull has reason to think he can expect to get the clean energy target (CET) that it advocates through his own side. He takes heart from the widespread acceptance that things can’t stay as they are. The issue has become precisely what the plan will look like.

There are many details that will be battled over when the cabinet gets down to considering the scheme. But the central question is the place of coal.

Turnbull accepts that so-called “clean coal” must be able to get on the “clean” side of the CET threshold. He could not hold the line in his ranks if it was excluded.

There are two constituencies within the government that are important in the challenge of keeping the issue on the rails. One is the Nationals. The other includes those in the Liberal Party who are highly critical of the scheme; many (although not all) are hardline conservatives.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, the Nationals leader, has signed up to the Finkel framework, probably while holding his nose.

The Nationals discussed Finkel on Monday, at a meeting that didn’t attract the publicity of Tuesday’s Coalition one. Joyce has his party in line.

Joyce is concerned that if new bipartisan arrangements aren’t put in place, a future Labor government will deliver a killer blow to the coal sector.

On the other hand, his fallback position is that if bipartisanship can’t be achieved, then the Coalition – especially the Nationals in their areas – can campaign on the claim that Labor wants to shut down the coal industry.

Liberal conservatives, including the vociferous Tony Abbott, have mixed motives in opposing Finkel: ideological opposition to a CET and – in just some cases, most notably Abbott’s – personal hostility to Turnbull.

Abbott can do damage to Turnbull on the issue, but (at this point) that damage can be contained. Ministers, including Joyce, are publicly pushing back against Abbott’s attacking tactics.

Interesting for insiders will be the position of cabinet minister Peter Dutton, who has emerged as de-facto leader of the conservative pack in the Liberal Party and is a future leadership aspirant.

Dutton and Turnbull, once distant, are now thick as thieves. Turnbull needs to keep Dutton close to protect his leadership (that’s why Dutton will quite likely get his homeland security department).

Pressed on 2GB on Thursday about his attitude toward the Finkel plan, Dutton dodged around, saying he agreed with “parts”. He said he wanted downward pressure on prices and stability to keep the lights on, but was “agnostic” about how to get there.

Turnbull and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg will not put a timetable on the government’s decision-making on Finkel. Obviously it would be dangerous to risk becoming hostage to expectations.

But there are risks in letting things drag on too long. Momentum is important and it is there now. Excessive delay can play into the hands of critics and troublemakers.

If he is to bed down this legacy, decisions should be made on Finkel before the end of the year, with legislation introduced prior to Christmas.

This article was written by:
Image of Michelle Grattan
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow – University of Canberra]





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

For $70m, government gets off lightly, but settlement still highlights responsibility for Manus

Govt-gets-off-lightly-over-Manus$70 million is tiny sum in the 
scheme of the federal government’s expenditure to manage asylum seekers 
who arrive by sea.

The federal government on Wednesday reached a settlement with 1,905 detainees on Manus Island for A$70 million. The settlement was agreed immediately before a trial was due to begin in Victoria’s Supreme Court. The case alleged the Commonwealth and its detention centre contractors, G4S and Transfield, had breached a duty of care owed to the plaintiffs in relation to their detention, and falsely imprisoned them between November 2012 and May 2016.

The decision to reach a settlement can be read in several ways.

It would first seem to be a stunning admission by the Commonwealth that it did owe a duty of care to the detainees, and that it breached this duty through its detention practices.

Alternatively, it may be read as a strategic decision by the Commonwealth to reduce the political damage it believed would be caused through a protracted trial (predicted to be six months). This damage was likely to be exacerbated by the court’s decision to allow proceedings to be streamed live.

A small price to pay?

Compared to the federal government’s expenditure to manage unauthorised maritime arrivals – $1.078 billion in the 2015-16 financial year, and more than $800 million in 2016-17 – $70 million is a tiny sum.

And $70 million – an average of about $36,000 per detainee – might seem a small price for the Commonwealth to pay for the litany of allegations of mistreatment detailed against it in the statement of claim. These included:

  • failure to provide adequate toilet facilities;
  • contaminated meals;
  • inadequate and delayed medical treatment; and
  • illegal detention.

This mistreatment was connected to the death of three detainees, and the serious injury of many more.

The class action brought the issues to a conclusion in a more timely fashion than individual actions could have done. But given the extent of the harm to each individual, the settlement amount for each person is likely to be significantly lower than they might have received in an individual claim.

The action was only peripherally about the money, though. The case provided a platform to lay bare the ugly reality of conditions in detention and the role of the Commonwealth and its contractors in producing and sustaining those conditions over many years.

A new way to hold government to account

In this case, private litigation was able to play a significant role in holding the government to account in an environment in which traditional accountability mechanisms fail to cut through. There are several reasons for this.

First, the case was able to produce new information about conditions on Manus Island. Once the class action was on foot, it provided a platform for expert witnesses and detainees to testify to conditions in detention free from the constraints of other types of investigation. It provided access to sensitive documents, such as the detail of government contracts with detention centre operators.

In contrast, the Australian Human Rights Commission only investigates detention abuses on Australian territory. And it is difficult for NGOs to investigate conditions in the detention centres. They need permission from governments to visit centres, and findings in their reports are easily denied by governments.

As a result, the best information on conditions in detention is through reports of those working in the centres, or through leaked documents.

As Slater and Gordon lawyer Andrew Baker said following the settlement, the case provided a strong reminder of the role the legal system can play in:

… holding governments and corporations accountable.

The case may herald the beginning of a period in which the Commonwealth will be forced to account for its offshore detention policy through protracted legal action.

What remains unclear is how many Manus Island detainees opted out of the action, and are thus free to bring individual claims. In light of the government’s decision to settle the claim, detainees outside the class action – and detainees on Nauru – may look to bring individual actions for negligence and false imprisonment against the Commonwealth.

If the treatment of these people was particularly bad, and they manage to reap a significant compensation settlement, this may open alternative pathways to settle in Australia. They might, for example, be able to apply for an investor visa, which requires a $1.5 million investment in a state or territory upon nomination.

There are no doubt many obstacles to such an application. This includes the ability to meet the health requirements for the visa – which might be compromised due to the applicants’ treatment in detention – or understanding Australian values, which may well seem very confusing to those subjected to offshore detention.

However, that such an application could even be contemplated highlights the perversity of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It brings into shocking relief the distinction drawn between the same person as an asylum seeker and as a migrant with the means to invest in Australia’s economy.

This article was written by:





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

From Joseph Banks to big data, herbaria bring centuries-old science into the digital age

Herbaria-bring-centuries-old-science-into-the-digital-ageSpecimens in  
herbaria include “pickled” plants in pots (shown here), dried specimens and fruits 
or seeds preserved whole. Ainsley Calladine, State Herbarium of South Aust

Last month, priceless botanical specimens were destroyed after an apparent miscommunication between scientists and Australian customs officials.

Although unfortunate, the incident has focused attention on the importance of being able to share scientific specimens around the world, and the vital role that herbaria play in modern science.

Despite being sometimes described as “museums for plants”, herbaria aren’t just natural history storage and displays. In this era of DNA barcoding, big data, biosecurity threats, bio-prospecting, and global information sharing, herbaria are complex and evolving institutions.

The modern herbarium is steeped in tradition and full of antiquities, but it also leads the application of modern approaches to understanding our past, present and future natural world.

The power of 8 million specimens

If you tell someone that you work at a herbarium, most will ask “what’s that?”, or perhaps “oh, what kind of herbs do you grow there?”.

Image of Viitadinia scacbra
Herbaria house historically important plant specimens with precise details of their collection. The card on this 247 year old example reads: Viitadinia scacbra, DC. Australia: Queensland. Bustard Bay 24°05’S 151°28’E. 23 May 1770. Collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, Captain Cook’s first voyage 1768-1771. The State Herbarium of South Australia, Author provided
Conventionally, a herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are stored and managed in an organised and structured way by curators and botanists who specialise in plant taxonomy and systematics.

There are some 3,000 active herbaria worldwide. As a collective, they contain more than 380 million specimens, spanning collections dating back as far as 500 years ago.

In Australia there are nine state, territory or national herbaria that, along with some university collections, hold close to eight million specimens. Four major Australian herbaria hold over a million specimens:

Herbarium specimens exist in many forms, including “pickled” plants or plant parts such as flowers or other delicate structures, dried specimens still attached to the surface on which they grew (like tree bark and rocks), and fruits or seeds preserved whole. But the overwhelming majority are dried, pressed plant specimens attached to archival card. Alongside these specimens there are sometimes drawings, paintings or photographs of the species, which capture details that are not discernible in the preserved specimen.

The Australasian Virtual Herbarium

The plant specimens don’t just exist on their own inside herbaria. Along with the specimens, the accompanying information is vital, such as where and when they were collected, specific details of the environments where they were collected, and who collected them.

In Australia, the major herbaria have been actively adding this information into a digital repository, resulting in a world-leading dataset: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.

map showing location of Salvation Jane
Sites of collection of Australian and New Zealand herbarium samples of the weed ‘Salvation Jane’ as displayed on the Australian Virtual Herbarium website. Australian Virtual Herbarium

The collation of these resources helped to inspire the development of the Atlas of Living Australia, and gives anyone with an internet connection access to specimen records from around Australia and the world.

Specimen-based, online data sets provide evidence of what species are found in a particular place at a particular time. They are a direct link from the presence of a species in the field, to collections of physical specimens held in herbaria, with the current name (that is, the latest changes in taxonomy) for that specimen.

There are many applications of such evidence including tracking changing species distributions such as ferals and weeds (an example of the weed “Salvation Jane” is shown in the figure above). Herbaria have been active in supporting detection of biosecurity threats. New introductions of species to Australia need careful determination of their identity and herbaria work with agencies to assist with this.

Sometimes, herbarium or museum specimens are the only evidence that a species existed at all. For example Gentianella clelandii, a species of native Gentian, is only known from the collection made of it in 1947 in the South East of South Australia. This species and others like it are likely to have been lost as a result of changing land use in the region at this time.

Samples from Cook, Flinders and Baudin

Image of Banksia serrata
Australia’s banksia is a well loved plant. This specimen card reads: Banksia serrata L/F New Holland, Banks and Solander, Botany Bay, April 1770. National Herbarium of Victoria, Author provided

Important historical, scientific or cultural plant specimens exist in herbarium collections.

Plants collected during the voyages of early European explorers – including Dampier, Cook, Flinders and Baudin – are still found in herbaria. Some of these plants were also shipped live back to Europe, and have been grown in gardens and in scientific collections all over the world.

Remarkably, due to the care in methods of preserving them, these specimens are often in excellent condition more than 200 years after their collection and still able to be used productively in scientific research.

Image of Hakea rugosa R. Br.
Type specimen collected by Robert Brown, who circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders. The card reads: Hakea rugosa R. Br. South Australia: Port Lincoln (Bay 10) March 1802. State Herbarium of South Australia, Author provided



These historical specimens are often the first known collections of a previously undescribed species. If so, they will be designated as “type” specimens by the taxonomist naming the new

species. Type specimens are very important as they allow the work of taxonomists to have a global frame of reference. This allows scientists to work out if two (or more) species have been assigned the same name.

Herbarium records enable resource managers to track distributions of both pest plants and endangered plants, providing a historical and current view of how widely spread and common the various species are across Australia.

You say River Red Gum, I say Yarrow

Taxonomy is the science of describing, classifying and naming plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomists do the work of describing and arranging plant species into classifications based on their morphology (what they look like), their genes and sometimes other features.

While highly scientific by nature, taxonomy is also vital to society at large. For invasive plant control, for border control, for environmental management and for urban planning, there must be no ambiguity as to which plant species we are talking about. Common names of plants can be misleading, the same plant often having many different common names. For example, the Australian iconic tree species Eucalyptus camaldulensis is known as River Red Gum, Blue Gum, Murray Red Gum, Red Gum, River Gum and Yarrow. We know these are all the same species, because taxonomists can compare herbarium specimens and determine if they share the same characteristics.

Expansion of the search for new biological compounds for human use — including medicines, food, cosmetics and other applications — exemplifies the problem of misapplied taxonomic names. For example the search for bioactive compounds in marine algae yields very different results for different species.

But imagine if there wasn’t a way to apply the precision of taxonomy in the search for information on the characteristics of a species to be used for biological control? Not only would time and money be lost, but the incorrect species could be used and unforseen outcomes may occur.

An example from the insect world is the Southeast Asian termite. A potentially harmful species of the termite genus Coptotermes was known regionally by another name, affecting its management as a pest causing building damage in the Americas and Malaysia.

Image of a botanist reviewing a herbarium sample
A botanist reviews a herbarium sample, in this case Helichrysum gatessi, or ‘the everlasting flower’ State Herbarium of South Australia, Author provided

Herbaria as a research resource

In addition to storing and organising specimens, larger or highly specialised herbaria usually have an associated research program. Focus scientific areas typically include taxonomy, systematics (how living things are classified and named), evolutionary biology, conservation biology and applied botany (using plants for economic benefit) .

Many herbaria have molecular genetics laboratories attached to them. DNA can be extracted from many specimens, even very old ones, and thus they can become a core part of ongoing DNA based scientific research. Today, DNA barcoding can provide a rapid tool for identifying species when flowers or fruits are not available, or if we have only fragments. Globally, DNA barcodes are now available for more than 265,448 species in the BOLD database. This aggregation of DNA sequences, which for plants are linked to herbarium vouchers, are a global resource that can be used in a “big data” context to explore ideas.

The value of herbaria samples extends beyond just the plants themselves. Herbarium specimens have been used to collate data for inferring changes in flowering times, leaf morphology and species ranges with climatic shifts.

Scientists also analyse chemicals that herbarium specimens have been exposed to, such as heavy metals associated with urban development, and different elements incorporated as leaves grow. Knowledge about waxes on leaf surfaces, as well as inhabitation by insects, fungi and bacteria are all possible through herbarium samples.

The global network of herbaria share specimens so that taxonomists and other researchers can benefit from their existence. With online resources making it known exactly what specimens are in which herbarium, there is an ever growing set of demands made on the use of specimens.

Curators who look after collections must balance the requests for using specimens in the present with long term preservation. The ability to track the impact of climate change and other unforeseen influences on plant health may make our current herbaria collections even more priceless in years to come.

This article was written by:
Image of Michelle WaycottMichelle Waycott – [Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide and Chief Botanist, State Herbarium of South Australia, University of Adelaide]





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation


Three strategies unions are considering for their survival

Three-strategies-unions-are-considering-for-their-survivalModern working conditions  
are forcing unions to alter the way they are structured. 
Search Results Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation

When more than 1,000 unionists gather in Sydney at a conference organised by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), they will be trying to work out a way forward for a movement that’s in danger of losing its relevance.

The meeting was initiated by the previous ACTU Secretary, Dave Oliver, in response to 2015 union membership figures that showed participation at an historic low. Membership has fallen further since then.

For union leaders, doing their job with dedication and passion isn’t enough. Economic shifts have hit industries with high numbers of union members. Overwhelmingly, new jobs are either not in unionised industries or not in permanent employment – or not in either – and unions aren’t adapting fast enough to this new reality.

The proposals on where to go from here mostly fall within three strands of unionism: community, professional identity and digital. These strands are not mutually exclusive. As Richard Wagstaff, head of New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, put it to a meeting of ACTU taskforces last July, “We need to move from a contest of ideas to a reservoir of ideas”.

Teaming up with other community groups

Community unionism is the strategy commonly associated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the United States. The SEIU pursues change outside the workplace, in coalition with other like-minded community groups.

It has been spectacularly successful in the Fight for Fifteen campaign for a US$15 minimum wage, which to date has won US$62 billion in wage increases.

The downside is that these political campaigns do not translate into membership growth, at least not in numbers that offset the money invested. Without modification, this is not a long-term growth strategy.

Aligning with a particular profession

Professional identity unionism is where the union works very closely to maintain its relevance for that occupation. It advocates for its profession, not just in industrial tribunals, but in industry forums as well. It often directly provides training on the skills required for that job.

This strategy is working a treat for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. It is on a growth trajectory and now the country’s largest union.

However in a world where most people will have multiple careers, professional identity is not as strong as it used to be.

Most Australian unions find this strategy a challenge because they’re industrial unions not craft unions – their members have a variety of occupations so it’s difficult for the union to clearly brand itself as the voice of this or that worker.

Finding members online

In digital unionism, unions reach and recruit members online. This sidesteps the difficulties of obtaining workplace access from hostile employers.

However converting online sympathisers into paying members has proven more difficult than it sounds. This is one reason America’s United Food and Commercial Workers abandoned its highly visible Our Walmart campaign, that was lobbying the supermarket giant via online channels to change its practises.

If Australia’s existing unions don’t perfect digital unionism first, others will take it into their own hands to advocate. One Uber driver told me in an interview that she was able to stare down the company purely on the strength of her influence on social media. She declared:

I’m just going to have to wait here until you let me know when it [overdue payments] come in. Otherwise you’re going to have 150 drivers in here before four o’clock.

Digital tactics like this feature strongly in the current wave of labour activism. This will develop with or without the involvement of incumbent unions. A few developments give us a clue as to how this will look.

For example the Independent Drivers Guild, sponsored by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, succesfully negotiated with Uber to create a process to appeal driver deactivation in late 2016. The guild had been treated with suspicion and derided as a quasi-union. It came as a surprise that it could achieve this win.

Other unions in the UK have created subdivisions to focus on new economy workers and each combines elements of community, professional identity and digital unionism. They are partnerships between unions and other groups, focusing on a narrowly defined group of workers rather than being a catch-all, and are digitally savvy.

For example, the Independent Workers of Great Britain created a branch in 2016 to represent London’s previously self-organised Deliveroo riders. Community, a UK Union, followed suit this month by establishing a subdivision called IndyCube Community for self-employed, mobile workers.

We’ll have to wait for the outcome of this latest ACTU conference, as to whether the different strands are pursued dogmatically or integrated into union strategies.

This article was written by:
Image of Michael WalkerMichael Walker – [PhD candidate researching worker voice, University of Technology Sydney]





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation


Explainer: what Islam actually says about domestic violence

what-Islam-actually-says-about-domestic-violenceThere is a common misunderstanding 
that one particular Qur’anic verse perpetuates violence against women. 

Domestic violence is not specific to a particular religious group; Australian statistics indicate that one in six women experience physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner in their lifetime.

Despite this, several recent media reports have sensationalised domestic violence within the Muslim community, and often falsely linked it to Verse 4:34 in the Qur’an.

This misunderstanding has not only been perpetuated within the Australian community, it is also widely misunderstood in the Muslim community.

Several Muslim individuals and organisations have recently commented about Verse 4:34 without a proper substantiated understanding of its context. This has only added to misunderstandings of what the Islamic view on domestic violence is.

Islam’s position on domestic violence

Islam’s position on domestic violence is drawn from the Qur’an, prophetic practice (sunnah), and historical and contemporary legal verdicts (fatwas).

The Qur’an and prophetic practice clearly illustrate the relationship between spouses. The Qur’an says the relationship is based on tranquillity, unconditional love, tenderness, protection, encouragement, peace, kindness, comfort, justice and mercy.

The Muslim prophet, Muhammad, set direct examples of these ideals of a marital relationship in his personal life. There is no clearer prophetic saying about a husband’s responsibility toward his wife than his response when asked:

Give her food when you take food, clothe her when you clothe yourself, do not revile her face, and do not beat her.

Muhammad further stressed the importance of kindness toward women in his farewell pilgrimage. He equated the violation of their marital rights to a breach of the couple’s covenant with God.

Abusive behaviour towards a woman is also forbidden because it contradicts the objectives of Islamic jurisprudence – specifically the preservation of life and reason, and the Qur’anic injunctions of righteousness and kind treatment.

Domestic violence is addressed under the concept of harm (darar) in Islamic law. It includes a husband’s failure to provide obligatory financial support (nafaqa) for his wife, a long absence of the husband from home, the husband’s inability to fulfil his wife’s sexual needs, or any mistreatment of the wife’s family members.

In the 17th century, during the Ottoman Empire, legal verdicts were issued against abusive husbands in several domestic violence cases.

Islam allows an abused wife to claim compensation under ta’zir (discretionary corporal punishment). The 19th-century Syrian jurist Ib Abidin said ta’zir is mandatory for a:

… man who beats his wife excessively and “breaks bone”, “burns skin”, or “blackens” or “bruises her skin”.

What about Verse 4:34?

But if Islam condemns all forms of violence against women, what about Verse 4:34 of the Qur’an? One translation of this verse reads:

Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard.
But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

This verse is specifically addressing the legal issue of nushuz, which is contentiously translated as a wife’s disobedience, flagrant defiance, or misbehaviour.

This is important because, as a general principle, a wife is entitled to financial support (nafaqa) from her husband as per Islamic jurisprudence guidelines. The only time she forfeits this right is if she is guilty of nushuz.

The contention about Verse 4:34 is particular to its English translation. There are no accurate translations of this verse, which compounds the issue for English-speakers. There are three particular words – qawwamuna, nushuzahunna, and wadribuhunna – that appear in this verse and are often mistranslated, mainly due to a lack of equivalent words in English.

Particularly problematic is how the word wadribuhunna is translated into English. A clear disagreement exists among English-language Qur’an commentators on how best to translate this word. All translations give an explicit negative connotation, and – when read out of context – further exacerbates any misunderstanding.

No classical and contemporary Muslim scholar has ever argued that wadribuhunna actually means “beat” your wives, despite how English translations render the meaning. Scholars have made every attempt to stipulate strict conditions that govern wadribuhunna, which is a last resort in a seriously dysfunctional marriage that is due to the nushuz of the wife.

So, any violence and coercion against women that is used to control or subjugate is considered to be oppression and is unacceptable in Islam – even if it is sanctioned by cultural practices.

This article was written by:
Image of Nada IbrahimNada Ibrahim – [Senior Research Fellow in Domestic and Family Violence, University of South Australia]


The National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

The economics of self-service checkouts

The-economics-of-self-service-checkouts Is self service all that economical?

Self-checkouts in supermarkets are increasing as businesses battle to reduce costs and increase service efficiency. But looking at the numbers, it isn’t clear that self-service is an easy win for businesses.

Self-checkouts aren’t necessarily faster than other checkouts, don’t result in lower staff numbers, and there are indirect costs such as theft, reduced customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Worldwide, self-checkout terminals are projected to rise from 191,000 in 2013 to 325,000 by 2019. A survey of multiple countries found 90% of respondents had used self-checkouts, with Australia and Italy leading the way.

Employment in the Australian supermarket and grocery industry went down for the first time in 2015-16 and is projected to remain flat for a few years. But staff numbers are projected to rebound again, in part due to the need to curtail growing theft in self-checkouts.

Social trends pushing self-checkout

There are a couple of intertwining trends that explain the rise of self checkouts.

We now visit our supermarkets more frequently than ever before, two to three times per week in fact. This means our basket contains fewer items and being able to wander up to a self-checkout, with little to no wait time, has been an expedient way to shop. Most shoppers consider self-checkouts both fast and easy to use. Although this varies with age – 90% of shoppers aged 18-39 found self-service checkouts easy to use, only 50% of those over 60 years said the same.

Shoppers also gain value from taking control of the transaction – being able to ring up their own goods and pack them the way they want. This is because a sense of control over their own shopping can lead to greater customer satisfaction and intent to use and reuse self-serve technology.

The numbers behind self-checkouts

Wages represent around 9.5% of supermarket revenue in Australia, and reducing wages is one of the reasons proposed for the uptake of self-checkout.

But from a business perspective, moving from “staffed” checkouts to self-serve machines isn’t cheap. A typical setup costs around US$125,000. On top of that there are the costs of integrating the machines into the technology already in place – the software and other systems used to track inventory and sales, and the ongoing costs – to cover breakdowns and maintenance.

But the biggest direct cost to retailers of adopting self-service checkouts is theft. Retail crime in Australia costs the industry over A$4.5 billion each year.

There is reason to believe that rates of theft are higher on self-service machines than regular checkouts. A study of 1 million transactions in the United Kingdom found losses incurred through self-service technology payment systems totalled 3.97% of stock, compared to just 1.47% otherwise. Research shows that one of the drivers of this discrepancy is that everyday customers – those who would not normally steal by any other means – disproportionately steal at self checkouts.

Studies also show that having a human presence around – in this case employees in the self-checkout area, increases the perceived risk of being caught, which reduces “consumer deviance”. This is why retailers have been adding staff to monitor customers, absorbing the additional losses, or passing them on to customers in an “honesty tax”.

Making self-checkouts work

Graph of the likelihood of stealing money

As you can see in this graph, preliminary work by researchers Kate Letheren and Paula Dootson suggests people are less likely to steal from a human employee than an inanimate object. Not only because they will get caught, but because they feel bad about it.

On the other hand, consumers have plenty of justifications to excuse self-checkout theft, which is leading to its normalisation.

To combat this, researcher Paula Dootson is trying to use design to combat deviance. One of the ways is through extreme-personalisation of service to reduce customer anonymity. Anonymity is an undesirable outcome of removing employees and replacing them with technology.

Other ideas are to include moral reminders prior to the opportunity to lie or steal (such as simply reminding people to be honest), and to humanise the machines by encoding human characteristics to trigger empathy.

While self-service technologies will continue to be adopted by businesses broadly, and particularly within the retail sector, it will be important for retailers to take a holistic approach to implementation and loss prevention.

Self-service technology reduces front line staffing costs and increases efficiency by re-distributing displaced staff into other service dominant areas of the business, but it creates unintended costs. These business costs can be direct, in the form of theft, but also indirect costs, like reduce customer satisfaction and loyalty. Something that some supermarkets are focusing on today.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Gary MortimerGary Mortimer – [Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology] and
Image of Paula DootsonPaula Dootson – [Research Fellow; PwC Chair in Digital Economy, Queensland University of Technology]





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation