Toronto’s gig workers union fights Uber’s proposed labour category

Uber is pushing governments to legislate a new category called Flexible Work+, but Gig Workers United says it would leave workers unprotected


It’s a pivotal time for gig workers in Canada.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, gig workers – especially delivery drivers and bike couriers – have become an integral part of our “new normal.” They’ve been hailed as essential workers, bringing food and other goods to people’s doors so that they can stay home.

But in an industry in which health and safety concerns have risen to the forefront, gig workers are less protected than workers in most other industries. They don’t have access to benefits, transparent wages or access to recourse to hold their companies accountable if they experience something inappropriate on the job.

That’s because workers for apps like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Skip The Dishes and others are not considered employees. Instead, they’re classified as independent contractors.

Workers all over the world have been challenging that labour category as an illegal misclassification, and the battle has heated up during the pandemic. Companies like Uber have lobbied vehemently against reclassifying their workers, but the support is growing.

So, Uber is has proposed the provinces and territories create a new labour category separate from “independent” and “dependent” contractors or salaried workers. It’s called Flexible Work+, or Flex+, and they’re pushing governments to legislate it into existence. Flexible Work+ would allow companies to provide app-based workers with a self-directed fund for things like health insurance, retirement plans and safety equipment without officially designating them as company employees.

An Uber Canada rep recently told NOW that 81 per cent of drivers are in favour of Flexible Work+, and prefer the independent contractor model over employment. But according to Jennifer Scott, the president of Gig Workers United, the choice between labour rights and employment classification shouldn’t be an either/or.

“We will lose the right to form a union. That’s what Flex+ means,” she says on this week’s episode of the NOW What podcast (embedded below). “We will lose the right to hold our employers accountable. And we will continue to work in the way we work now where we have no avenues for recourse.”

Gig Workers United is a union in Toronto that represents food and grocery, parcel delivery workers working for various different delivery companies. It arose out of the Foodsters, a union of Foodora workers who won the right to organize before the food delivery company abruptly left Canada. But the community remained, providing mutual support and aid in an isolated industry. So they decided to keep their collective power and redirect it towards labour rights for all gig workers.

“This is an industry that is valuable, that has a lot of potential for growth. So why can’t the workers just be like any other worker in this country and have workers’ rights?” she asks.

They’re asking for support from both gig workers and those who rely on them. As more industries have shifted towards freelance and contract work and companies have divested from their physical offices, many have pinpointed gig workers as the next frontier of labour organizing. Their work could determine the future of labour rights for a majority of people.

“I have a hard time imagining the government will create a new classification of worker and that five years from now the only people who will be classified as that will be gig workers,” says Scott. “How many industries and how many people who work now will find themselves in that classification without any rights, without any recourse, without any protection?

“I don’t want to make folks nervous, but at the end of the day I think the gig economy is coming for your job,” she continues. “I think that a group of vibrant, capable, amazing low-income bike couriers and car couriers and migrant workers and women, [those] are the people who are standing at the forefront of labour and holding the line for labour protections and workers’ rights for literally everybody in Canada. And we’re up against a really big boss.”

You can learn more about Gig Workers United’s campaign at their website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

Listen to the entire conversation in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

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