Over the past 15 years, digital labour platforms have allowed the share of Canadians who do gig work to nearly double: between 2005 and 2020, their share of the Canadian workforce jumped from 5.5 to 10 per cent. Food delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats have been a major part of this surge. Their business model is founded on connecting customers with workers who pick up food from restaurants and then deliver it to the customer’s location.  

Currently, workers on these digital labour platforms are classified as independent contractors under Ontario’s Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act 2022. This is the same classification used for people who do freelance work, such as graphic designers, electricians, or caterers. 

But several factors distinguish delivery couriers from freelancers. The latter tend to be self-employed, have multiple business relations, and design contracts on their terms. 

On the other hand, the gig workforce is also distinct from traditional employees of a company. By definition, gig workers occupy temporary and part-time positions without guaranteed hours or pay. The temporary and casual nature of delivery couriers’ work means they are disconnected from both one other and the company they work for. 

These working conditions allow employers to avoid complying with labour regulations that apply to traditional employee relations. What’s more, workers have less opportunity to do collective organizing because they lack connection to each other. 

The challenges of gig work

Gig Workers United (GWU) is a union of delivery app workers in the GTA, whose goal is to obtain rights like fair, livable wages and safe working conditions. In an email to The Varsity, Brice Sopher, vice president of GWU CUPW, described the challenges that gig workers face.

Gig workers, unlike other workers, don’t have access to benefits such as unemployment insurance, health insurance, or a retirement pension. They can often be, essentially, fired from the platform they work on without any notice and can be accused of violating their contract without being told how or why — practices that labour laws for traditional employees prevent.

Although gig workers gain flexibility and independence in comparison to traditional workers, they do not have job security. This flexibility might seem beneficial, as it allows the workers to choose their working days. But it also may lead them to work until exhaustion when orders are coming in, as they have no guarantee of a satisfactory demand the following day.

Ginevra Sweetko, a third-year criminology student working in a restaurant, confirmed: “I directly interact with drivers… their income and working hours are largely based on the restaurant’s demand. During a slow day, only three or four drivers will stop [by] to collect orders. When fewer orders are placed, multiple drivers issue a request for pick up.” Sweetko notes that this suggests couriers struggle to find enough orders to complete. 

Sopher also noted that for workers who do courier work by car, workplace challenges include “gas, wear and tear on cars, insurance, long waits with no pay… risk of repetitive use injuries as well as dangerous working conditions in inclement weather.” 

Sopher added that bike couriers also face hardships, such as “bike theft, being injured in collisions, cost of renting bikes or commuting, [and] expensive data plans.”

The gig workers’ demands 

Indeed, according to GWU, if workers spend more time taking precautions to work safely, they can be penalized by app employers for not meeting unrealistic delivery deadlines. Additionally, since gig workers’ days off are unpaid, many choose to work while injured or sick.

One of GWU’s aims is to correct the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. This is essential for workers to gain access to labour protections such as paid breaks, recourse for wrongful dismissal, and protection against wage theft. Since earlier this year, the GWU has been demonstrating against the Ontario Labour Board.

GWU notes on its website that employers often impose new contracts on workers without any notice, forbidding them from going online unless they accept it. Sometimes, that means agreeing to lower pay. That is why GWU demands transparency and accountability in how employers determine working conditions and payments.

Sopher proposes that legislative protections apply the “ABC test” to employers’ treatment of gig workers. 

The ABC test defines workers as employees unless a company can prove three criteria: A) they must show that workers are free from the company’s control; B) they must show that the workers perform work outside the usual course of the company’s business; C) they must show that the workers do similar work in a separate and independent capacity, outside of their work for the company. 

The test “puts the onus on the employer instead of the worker as it is now,” according to Sopher. 

Raising prices for customers could seem like a potential solution to increase couriers’ wages. But there is no reason to believe that companies would use that money to improve workers’ conditions.

As Sopher noted: “When apps have raised prices for consumers and increased fees for restaurants, they [have] paired that with wage cuts for workers.”

Gig workers who spoke to The Washington Post pointed to this as well. As prices peaked for consumers due to inflation, they claimed that workers still struggled to pull through.

In 2022, the total compensation for Dara Khosrowshahi — the Uber Technologies Inc.’s chief executive — rose 22 per cent, reaching 24.3 million USD. Additionally, as the number of monthly active drivers and couriers rose by 23 per cent, the median pay decreased from the previous year. This divided the CEO-to-employee pay ratio from 316 to one. 

U of T students weigh in

Food delivery services charging higher prices could trigger varying reactions among students that talked to The Varsity about the issue. 

“I would not be willing to pay more for delivery services… increasing their prices will only encourage me to use them even less,” said Chiara Nuvoloni, a second-year economics student.

“As consumers, it’s not our duty to compensate for corporate greed,” said Riad Sankari, a third-year psychology and neuroscience student.

Some other students, like Sweetko, would instead “happily pay a tax… that aims to protect the safety rights of the drivers.” Dalia Bechara, a third-year european affairs student, added that she would be “willing to pay a higher price,” but not a significantly higher one.

Amélie Mazzarotto, a second-year criminology student, said “If I wasn’t an unemployed university student… I would 100 per cent be willing to pay more for [food delivery] services, if this was absolutely necessary in order to improve workers’ salaries and conditions. However, I believe it’s the companies hiring them that should change their policies.” 

Sankari added that he wasn’t familiar with the topic of couriers’ working conditions, but he noted that the unfair treatment they face is a “striking reflection of broader issues within our workforce.” Part of that, Sankari wrote, is that a tough job market forces people to rely on gig work for their full income, rather than doing it for supplementary income. 

Bill 88 offers new protections, but not enough

In 2022, the Ontario government passed Bill 88, the Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, into law. The legislation is flawed, but it does introduce some benefits for gig workers.

One of those benefits is pay transparency — employers must now disclose how they calculate the amount they pay gig workers. Employers must also provide more notice and information when they penalize, suspend, or terminate gig workers’ employment. This act also makes sure that tips go to workers, although this is already technically required by Ontario labour laws. 

Finally, Bill 88 plans to bring in portable healthcare benefits. These benefits would be attached to an individual employee, rather than to their employer — which is essential for gig workers who frequently change jobs. 

However, Bill 88 still allows employers to pay gig workers below minimum wage. 

Under the legislation, employers are only mandated to pay their employees minimum wage exclusively for “assignment time.” For food couriers, this would mean they only get paid for the time spent picking up and delivering orders. They would not get paid for the time they spend waiting for new assignments to come, which is an inevitable part of their working day.

On its website, GWU says this is equivalent to a scenario where a construction worker gets paid “only while the hammer is on the nail.” 

The act also does not address the misclassification of gig workers as independent contractors, nor the necessity for them to be classified as traditional employees in order to gain access to labour protection and employment rights.

What is certain is that gig workers face unethical working conditions that we can no longer ignore. They should stop being misclassified as independent contractors and receive the same rights that other traditional workers have. After all, they are ultimately the ones running their industry.