A gig driver in Victoria claims that he works 10 hours daily, seven days a week, putting $100 into his car every two weeks to end up grossing $1,200 a week. A ride-hail courier in Nanaimo slipped and fell while on the job, claiming that he didn’t receive any compensation for his loss of income or for his medical expenses.
These are just a few of the many, gritty, hard-luck stories of life as a gig worker that the government of British Columbia (BC) has heard as part of in-person consultations regarding issues facing gig workers in BC. Consultations wrapped up on January 6, with the province also conducting an online survey.
Among the complaints are long hours at low pay, and people who have invested heavily into their vehicles and then found themselves without work.
As BC begins to form policy around so-called gig workers—freelance, contract employees, and others who work for ride sharing, food delivery firms and others—it becomes just the latest government to grapple with the new economy.
In Canada, both the federal government and Ontario have already examined potential changes to employment standards. Gig work is also a hot topic south of the border. “The fight over whether gig workers are independent contractors or employees has been heating up this week on both state and federal levels. The stakes? A once disruptive business model could soon be disrupted itself,” TechCrunch reported in late December.
At the same time, ahead of any anticipated changes, at least one major gig worker business, Uber, has lobbied to see its own set of industry standards put in place. Ride-sharing competitor Lyft also has its own vision of what employment standards might look like.
The BC series of consultations are part of a provincewide strategy for workers whose jobs could be described as precarious. Adam Walker, BC’s parliamentary secretary for the sustainable economy, is leading the process. [Since BetaKit reported the story, Walker was moved in the resulting cabinet shuffle and Janet Routledge was appointed B.C.’s new Parliamentary Secretary for Labour and took over responsibility for the precarious work strategy.]
Walker told BetaKit that the province has heard from Uber in its public reports that they have some 30,000 drivers in BC. He added, “We know there are many other platforms here, so it’s safe to say that there are tens of thousands of platform workers in our province.”
According to the many stories the BC government has heard from gig workers over the course of the consultations, it appears that there are gig workers who lack basic employment standards such as minimum wage and workplace injury protection.
While gig workers told the consultations that they like the flexibility of the work and that there are minimal barriers to entry, the gigs also come with a lot of challenges.
Among the complaints are long hours at low pay, and people who have invested heavily into their vehicles and then found themselves without work because of a couple of poor reviews. “This is just the tip of the iceberg we’re hearing from workers in the space,” Walker said.
BC’s consultations follow those of the federal government and the province of Ontario in the past two years. The federal government carried out consultations with gig workers in 2021, but so far hasn’t produced a report related to those findings, pledging to do further consultations on the subject.
In Ontario, Bill 88 was passed into law in April. Among other things, Bill 88 enacts the Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, 2022, which covers gig economy workers in Ontario. Bill 88 stipulates that workers have a right to earn a minimum wage, and the right to certain information related to the platforms they work for. The latter includes informing workers of how their pay from digital platform work is calculated, whether the platform uses a performance rating system and, if so, whether there are consequences based on a worker’s performance rating or a worker’s failure to perform a work assignment and a description of those consequences.
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In BC, the consultations have heard how gig employees start off earning relatively good money but as time progresses they end up making less and less per day. “We’re not sure why that it is, Walker said, “but it’s a consistent story we’re hearing.”
Another issue that has cropped up is how one of the first phone calls, texts or emails new Canadians receive when they arrive in Canada comes from another new Canadian who refers them to gig work. “They don’t know there’s a commission or fee for that type of referral,” Walker said. “So these people coming into this line of work are maybe not being told the whole story.”
BC has not been the most welcoming jurisdiction when it comes to gig workers. Both Uber and Lyft are fairly new entrants to the province, only gaining access to the BC market in 2019. The decision to allow the gig platforms came after a lengthy battle by the ride-hailing companies to allow for operations in the province. After years of campaigning, the provincial government introduced legislation in 2018 that would allow ride-hailing companies to expand into the province. Even then, the first licence didn’t gain approval until December 2019.
While BC looks at amending the employment standards act to better protect gig workers, Uber Canada told BetaKit that it is advocating for a set of industry-wide standards. The ride-sharing company said its proposed standards would preserve flexibility for drivers and delivery people while introducing the benefits and protections they need.
Uber said it arrived at these standards working with UFCW Canada, Canada’s largest private sector union. “This package of reforms, which includes a minimum earning standard, flexible benefits, and worker rights, is supported by 91 percent of drivers and delivery people in BC,” claimed Keethana Rang, Uber’s corporate communications lead.
“We want to make sure we get that balance right between the services British Columbians rely on, and protections for workers.”
However, what Uber and UFCW Canada don’t say is that the proposed package of reforms still retains workers as independent contractors rather than employees, according to The Globe and Mail. In a piece in August, The Globe reported that hundreds of pages of documents the paper accessed detailed the way the union and the tech giant jointly pressed the Ontario government to exclude app-based gig workers from being covered by the province’s Employment Standards Act.
“To see a prominent and powerful union essentially in cahoots with Uber in such a blatant way to undermine gig workers is quite startling,” Veena Dubal told the Globe. Dubal is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings who researches the impacts of technology on workers.
The distinction between independent contractors and employees is an important one. Independent contractors are not entitled to minimum wage, employer Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance contributions or to participate in tax-advantaged benefits plans, according to Sara Tatelman, an associate at Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto.
“Their employment status saves platform companies millions of dollars each year — and those companies are keen to keep on saving,” Tatelman points out, noting that the distinction in employment status has been fiercely contested south of the border, and it’s that argument that’s now making its way north.
Lyft declined to make a spokesperson available for this story, but pointed BetaKit to the company’s economic impact report for 2022. Among the findings? Ninety-one percent of the Lyft drivers surveyed said they would support a policy proposal under which drivers would remain independent contractors, maintain the current flexibility they enjoy, and be given some, but not all, of the benefits that employees receive.
In a series of policy papers, Lyft also flatly stated that what makes app work unique and “must be preserved” is that it gives drivers the flexibility to drive whenever, wherever on whatever platform and for however long drivers choose. Secondly, the company advocates, “that this independence can be combined with requiring companies to provide drivers with protections and benefits.”
Said Walker: “We don’t want to presuppose what the next steps will be but hearing from workers who are making significantly less than the minimum wage, that definitely needs to be addressed.”
Walker noted the nature of work is changing, and changing quickly. He said the province wants to arrive at a made-in-BC approach that addresses the challenges in BC that will probably be “a little different” than other jurisdictions.
But as BC looks at further regulating the platforms, Walker acknowledged the next steps are uncertain. “But we want to make sure we get that balance right between the services British Columbians rely on, and protections for workers,” he said.