Widow of food delivery man pledges to fight for workers’ rights after legal victory

The widow of a deceased food delivery man in Sydney has vowed to continue fighting for workers’ rights after winning a long legal battle against concert company Hungry Panda.

Speaking at 7.30am after the bittersweet win, Lihong Wei said her two children are still struggling to cope with the loss of their father, Xiaojun Chen, two years ago.

“My husband was very willing to help others,” Ms Wei said through a Mandarin interpreter from her home in rural China.

“He was a very good father, a good husband and a good son.”

Mr Chen was riding a motorbike for Hungry Panda when he was hit by a bus in the central Sydney suburb of Zetland in September 2020.

He was one of five delivery workers to die on Australian roads in the space of three months that year.

Lihong Wei says she hopes “no other family suffers from the sadness and pain that we have experienced.”(ABC News: Jack Fisher)

“My daughter and my son lost their father forever, I lost my husband forever, and the whole family is in great grief,” Ms. Wei said.

Mr. Chen had come to Australia to support his family back in China, hoping to save money so he could start his own business.

Mr. Chen’s sudden death drove Ms. Wei into an extraordinary public battle with Hungry Panda.

Weeks after her husband’s death, she braved the global pandemic, traveling from China to Sydney to give evidence in a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the gig economy.

Although the company provided some support to Ms. Wei, the investigation revealed that Hungry Panda was not legally obligated to pay her compensation because Mr. Chen was classified as a contractor and not an employee.

A man stands in front of a house.
Xiaojun Chen moved to Australia to work and support his family back in China.(Provided)

Gig workers generally do not qualify for workers’ compensation under the state system because they are independent contractors.

It was later revealed that Hungry Panda failed to report Mr Chen’s death to the workplace safety regulator, SafeWork NSW, in a timely manner.

Ms Wei filed a lawsuit against Hungry Panda and last month was awarded $830,000 by the Personal Injury Commission.

Hungry Panda did not respond to 7.30 inquiries.

“I hope I can fight for the rights and protections that delivery workers deserve,” Ms. Wei said.

“I also hope that no other family suffers from the sadness and pain that we experienced. I hope things like this never happen again.”

Significantly, the commission found that Mr. Chen was employed by Hungry Panda, which Ms. Wei’s lawyer said could pave the way for further cases.

“I hope this will mean that more claims will be accepted on [a] a similar basis if circumstances warrant,” said Jasmina Mackovic of Slater and Gordon.

National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Michael Kaine, said Ms Wei had been “an inspiration to all of us”.

“It was absolutely humbling to see how she came out and fought through the depths of her grief,” he said at 7:30 a.m.

Federal government puts concert companies on notice

A Hungry Panda delivery man.
Xiaojun Chen was working as a delivery boy for Hungry Panda when he was killed.(ABC News: Jason Om)

With its slick advertising and celebrity endorsements, the booming global food delivery industry is worth billions, but the price of convenience comes at a cost to some workers and their families.

Runners are paid little per order as they compete to deliver takeout on busy roads and are not entitled to employee benefits, such as minimum wage, superannuation or sick leave .

While gig companies say contractors enjoy the flexibility and freedom to work across platforms and have introduced their own support schemes, unions say industry practices have eroded fundamental rights workers to a safe and fair workplace.

Before the election, the Labor Party promised to take action, and now the Albanian government has put industry on notice, with plans to empower the Fair Work Commission to set minimum standards for construction workers.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke would not be drawn to any specific rights the commission could award, but told 7.30am governments had been too slow to act on the sector.

Tony Burke wears a black suit and red tie when addressing the media in Parliament.
Tony Burke says the government will lead the way in creating minimum standards for gig workers.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“The only way to handle this is to have government action,” Burke said.

“The only way to change the situation of these exploited workers is to legislate and that is what we will do.”

Uber, Deliveroo, Menulog and DoorDash said at 7:30 a.m. they were committed to supporting delivery people and would work with the federal government to improve standards.

Uber and DoorDash also signed agreements with the transport workers union, expressing their support for the change.

University of Adelaide employment law expert Andrew Stewart said the tide was turning against gig businesses around the world, including in Australia.

“There’s a lot of merit in leaving this one up to the industrial arbiter to deal with,” Prof Stewart told 7.30am.

“The question is, is it enough?

“It’s highly likely that by some time next year we’ll have new rights in place for gig workers, but we still don’t know how far the protections will extend.”

Watch this story tonight at 7:30 p.m. on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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