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The unionization of the gig economy

Exploring the future of gig work and workers’ rights
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LIYA HUANG/THE VARSITY
LIYA HUANG/THE VARSITY

There are over 1.7 million gig workers above the age of 15 in Canada. The gig economy differs from the traditional economy: traditionally, full-time workers stayed in a job and focused on developing their careers, but the gig economy provides opportunities for those who wish to work as independent contractors and freelancers. The gig economy is not new, and the term commonly applies to jobs that use technology such as Uber, TaskRabbit, Doordash, and Fiverr.

The gig economy during COVID-19

Compared to the traditional economy, the gig economy offers more flexibility when it comes to the hours an individual works and the types of jobs available to them. Gig workers can focus on their family life, their social life, and whatever else they find important. Simultaneously, their employers — who may not have the need to hire full-time workers — can hire workers anywhere in the world.

The pandemic has impacted many industries globally, and it has had effects on both the gig economy and work in general. Lockdown restrictions have allowed us to realize that many jobs can be done remotely and have changed the typical 9:00 am to 5:00 pm job structure. On the other hand, the pandemic has also been devastating for many workers who lost their jobs, so people have turned to gig work to make ends meet. 

Since the start of the pandemic, gig workers have been in high demand. As more workers turn to the gig economy, they have begun considering unionization in order to secure benefits and stability. 

Is unionizing the way to go? 

The suggestion to unionize gig workers has long been a topic of debate in North America. Unlike traditional workers, there are no set income rates or benefits for gig workers, which puts them in more precarious positions in terms of financial and job security. Gig workers, governments, companies, and consumers have been faced with finding solutions to make this line of work more stable. 

As reported by The Guardian, in New York state, legislation has been proposed to make it easier to unionize gig workers. The proposal has been met with much controversy and many union officials are questioning if the benefits of the legislation would outweigh the cons. The legislation would allow for industry-wide bargaining for gig workers in New York, such as food delivery workers, but would not define gig workers as employees, meaning they would forego their rights to be paid minimum wage and receive protection against discrimination. It also contains phrases that would affect the ability of app-based delivery workers to go on strike. 

The California legislature voted in Prop 22, which lets businesses classify gig workers as independent contractors. This means that these gig workers are required to be provided with health care contribution subsidies and 120 per cent of the local minimum wage. 

Unionization of gig economy in Canada

The Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled in February 2020 that gig workers at Foodora had the right to unionize. This ruling was the first to be made regarding labour rights in the gig economy in Ontario and has set a precedent for more cases to come. Foodora workers are not alone in their demands, and unionizing in the gig economy would help decrease high turnover rates and improve relationships between gig workers and employers.

On the other side of the aisle, anti-unionization groups argue that unionization could increase unemployment, as it may increase the cost for employers to maintain employees. Furthermore, unionization could result in fewer jobs and hours offered to gig workers, thus resulting in more losses than benefits. 

As U of T’s graduating students enter the workforce, they can expect more opportunities in the gig economy, with more say in what schedule and tasks they want to have. With the gig economy becoming bigger as more opportunities become available, students and faculty should ask questions about what can be done to prepare students for this line of work — a line of work that requires efficiency, quality, and accuracy.