The gig economy has quickly become an important part of Canada’s labour market, now encompassing as much as three to five per cent of the workforce.
In Toronto alone there are close to 100,000 ride-hail drivers working for Uber, Lyft and other firms – and tens of thousands more doing other gig jobs. And the practice is spreading quickly into many new occupations, like computing, accounting and even social services.
Gig jobs have become a fallback for workers who have a hard time breaking into more stable, traditional positions. Most gig workers are young, and a disproportionate share are from racialized or immigrant communities. Many concerns have been raised about wages and working conditions – including low hourly incomes, uncertain schedules and dangers on the job.
Around the world gig workers and labour advocates are challenging their employers before labour regulators and judges, pressing for minimum wages, basic entitlements (like pensions) and better safety.
Here in Canada, for example, arguments were heard this month in two important cases. One is a Supreme Court of Canada appeal which could allow Uber drivers to sue their employer (which currently channels driver complaints to a stacked arbitration system based in the Netherlands). The other is an Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing to determine whether Foodora couriers in Toronto have the right to unionize.
Both these companies argue their workers are independent contractors – and hence don’t have the normal rights of paid employees.
Indeed, gig employers claim that since their business models are “new” and “innovative,” traditional labour regulations shouldn’t apply. Giving gig workers the same rights as other workers – like a minimum wage, paid holidays, sick leave, pensions and workers’ compensation – would interfere with their dynamic growth. It would disrupt the disruptors.
But what is truly “innovative” about gig businesses’ employment practices? Let’s review the core features of gig work. It turns out that none of them were invented in Silicon Valley; all of them have actually been around for centuries:
Working on demand: Workers are only employed when there is immediate work. That shifts the risks of business fluctuations from the boss to the workers – and it’s been done for ages. For generations, day labourers trekked to docks, mines, farms and factories in search of a few hours’ work. The lucky ones are chosen. The unlucky ones try again tomorrow.
Piece work compensation: Gig workers are paid by the task, not by the hour. Piece work is a long-standing practice in many occupations (factories, sales, agriculture, and services). But those employers are still required to at least match the minimum wage.
Supplying their own equipment: Gig workers bring (and pay for) their tools, cars, phones, data and other capital equipment. Nothing new there, either. Loggers, fishers, cleaners, hair stylists, tradespeople and others have long been required to bring their own capital to work. Canadian labour law even reflects this practice with special rules for “dependent contractors.”
Paying the intermediary: The platform company positions itself between gig workers and the end-users of their labour (whether consumers or other businesses). And the platform then takes a generous cut: 25 per cent of all revenue, in the case of Uber. For hundreds of years, gang-masters, labour hire agents and other middlemen have exploited the desperation of workers to skim off a rich layer of cream for themselves.
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The only thing truly new about gig employment is its use of digital and on-line techniques to assign work, discipline workers (who can now be fired by an app, rather than a human boss), and control the money. That’s more effective than the bulletin boards and classified ads of yesteryear – but it hardly negates the inherent power imbalance between an individual worker and the multibillion-dollar company they work for.
Digital matching technologies hold great potential for facilitating new services and growing new industries. But if that potential is to translate into decent jobs and a better community, gig employers must be held to the same standards as any other business. Their so-called “innovations” don’t give them a free pass on respecting basic rights and protections – the same ones other workers have been fighting to win for centuries.