Online marketplace Sidekicker is taking advantage of people who have little choice but to juggle multiple low-paying jobs to make ends meet, writes artist and freelancer Ben Markley.
After graduating early this year with one of the least vocational degrees, I didn’t expect the largest array of job prospects. Nevertheless, I was surprised by how hard it was to find a way into any entry-level role outside of hospitality. Lowering my standard of work from “entry level but challenging, with upward mobility in an interesting field” to “pretty much anything that pays”, I searched around Seek, applying for all kinds of roles.
With each rejection email I grew slowly more despondent, wondering if I would be stuck in the grind of hospitality work forever, and never get the kind of challenging career-like job that plenty of people seem to find.
During my long searches on Seek I noticed a recurring theme. Jobs from an employer called Sidekicker appeared prominently in almost all category searches, promising opportunities with little experience required. Following the links in the hopes of applying directly for one of these roles, I soon found this wasn’t possible. As far as I could tell these were not job listings so much as ads recruiting casual workers for the Sidekicker platform, and the roles advertised were available only to “sidekicks” (casual employees of Sidekicker).
To apply for any of these one-off or short fixed-contract jobs you need to make it through Sidekicker’s six-stage screening process, including face-to-face interviews, a short seminar, and skills testing at a Sidekicker “onboarding” centre.
Sidekicker says only 15% of applicants make it through this rigorous process, but it’s not clear to me whether this is due to selectivity on its part or to large numbers of applicants deciding at some point that this tedious procedure isn’t worth their while.
I went through the onboarding process and after being interviewed, watching the seminar and pouring water into wine glasses in a simulated dining room, I was accepted to be a sidekick in the hospitality worker category. I never finished building a profile and sending in the necessary paperwork, however. I had been drawn in with the hope of getting out of hospitality, and it seemed like a lot more hoops to jump through for the kind of low-paid work already available in far more direct ways. After looking into Sidekicker’s policies further, I decided that working for them would have been a sad waste of time. I sensed something dystopian about this new work model and wanted no part in it.
The company was formed in Australia in 2012 with the aim of streamlining the process of hiring temporary workers for one-off and fixed-contract jobs. Its founder Tom Amos sought to disrupt the temp recruitment industry which he saw as lagging in terms of technological innovation. The company now has seven offices across Australia and New Zealand.
In 2015 Sidekicker joined forces with the Australian employment giant Seek, which recently invested $10 million to allow the company to expand further. The Sidekicker platform “reduces friction and drives integrity in the marketplace while creating better outcomes for those participating in it”, the company said in its submission to the Victorian inquiry into the on-demand workforce. But I got the feeling that Sidekicker is mostly concerned with employer outcomes.
The testimonials on its website are first and foremost from companies employing staff. The platform offers a streamlined way to schedule and pay staff by the hour with very little admin or paperwork. It also gives employers flexibility in hiring staff at the last minute for events based on expected turnout.
Through the Sidekicker website, employers can request workers for a set number of hours, specifying the skills, certifications and uniforms required. These requests are immediately forwarded to all sidekicks in applicable categories who have indicated they will be available. The requests show up as notifications in the Sidekicker app, much like they would appear for an Uber driver. Sidekicks are free to accept or decline the requests.
Accepting a job request does not mean a sidekick has secured a shift of work, however. After posting their request companies have 72 hours, or until the time the job starts, to accept or decline the sidekicks who have applied. It’s very likely that more people will have applied than are actually needed and the employer can take their time picking which applicants they want based on their profiles and application letters. Sidekicks who don’t write application letters are unlikely to secure jobs, so they need to spend time marketing themselves for each one-off, low-wage shift.
While sidekicks are free to accept or decline requests, applying for a job effectively puts them on call for a job they might not have. They can withdraw from jobs they have been accepted for if their schedule changes, but this results in major harm to their reliability score. Withdraw three times and you are removed from the platform permanently. Fail to show up to a job for any reason and you are permanently removed from the platform too.
Sidekicker has strict performance policies. It does not allow any of its workers to contact its clients directly for further work outside the platform, before, during or after a job. Doing so results in immediate removal, an offence referred to as “subversion of the platform”. The company also appears to have limited interest in hearing from its employees. “Other than onboardings and skills training, there is no instance where a Sidekick should need to come into a Sidekicker office. Unless explicitly requested by Sidekicker staff, arriving unannounced at the office is a breach of this policy,” it says.
Its policies also include stringent rules around social media use. “If your public views about Sidekicker are posted in ways that are defamatory or found to be deterring sidekicks or customers from participating in the Sidekicker community, they may be removed by our social media manager, and disciplinary action may be taken,” it says. Although there are more than 11,000 fully-fledged sidekicks, there are few reviews of the company on job websites like GlassDoor. Out of those there are, a common complaint is that it is hard to get steady work and some sidekicks can go for weeks without securing shifts.
For each job employers arrange through the platform, Sidekicker charges a 20% administration fee. Though this extra cost may be worth the trouble it saves for the employer, it is a large cut that might have been better spent on paying decent wages for a fixed staff.
Perhaps there is a need for the kind of flexibility Sidekicker offers, but this need reflects the increasingly precarious conditions under which we now work. It seems as though more and more effort is demanded from employees to market themselves on “Tinder for jobs”-style platforms just to get poorly paid, insecure jobs with few opportunities for advancement. In our low-wage gig economy there is a high demand for flexibility, because to make ends meet workers need to juggle multiple jobs with unfixed hours week on week.
People choose to be sidekicks not because it is ideal, but because they need to take what is on offer. This is the situation that brought me into contact with Sidekicker in the first place. Ideally, flexibility would be paired with security and opportunity, but these are not things a platform like this seems interested in providing. My hope is that in the future there will be enough employment opportunities for myself and others to make Sidekicker redundant.
Ben Martley is a show facilitator at Furniture Gallery, an artist-run gallery and studio in Parnell. He is also a part-time tattoo artist and cafe worker.
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