Toronto gig workers continue to organize despite COVID-19 complications

Foodsters United set the precedent for gig workers to unionize. Now, Uber Black drivers continue the fight.

On Feb. 22, 2021, Uber Eats worker Narada Kiondo went to log on to his account on the popular food delivery app, only to find it unresponsive. He was locked without an explanation from Uber’s driver support line, leaving him without income for weeks.

“We demand that UberEats gives us the dignity to tackle this issue with seriousness,” Kiondo said in a personal statement. “We demand compensation for lost weeks of work and the mental stress of losing our livelihoods and access to work with no clear statements [from Uber] addressing it.”

Gig Workers United—formerly known as Foodsters United—is a gig workers’ union formed in July 2019. Its most recent campaign is to demand accountability from Uber for workers dealing with lost wages, high stress, and a lack of transparency.

This is just one instance of gig workers, who work temporary jobs on-demand for companies, relying on labour organizing to address concerns. This reliance has been worsened by COVID-19, as contractors have become more dependent than ever on the unstable incomes they gain from delivery apps like Uber.

“One of the biggest frustrations is that the wages are already low as it is, even in these difficult times, and there hasn’t really been any boost to compensate for the working conditions,” Houston Gonsalves, a member of Gig Workers United, told The Pigeon.

On Jan. 12, 2021, Ontario declared another state of emergency in response to surging COVID-19 cases in the province. So far, there have been over 7,000 deaths related to the coronavirus in Ontario.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford is asking the public to stay at home, but that isn’t possible for many gig workers.

Instead, they’re put at an increased risk of infection to try and make a living wage—which was a minimum of $22.08 per hour for Toronto in 2019—by having to enter multiple businesses per shift.

Although any gig worker who earned over $5,000 in 2019 was eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) during the pandemic, the most recent statistical data from 2016 shows that the median net gig income was lower—around $4,300. However, they may qualify for the new Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), which provides eligible workers with $500 per week, paid in two-week periods.

Gig workers are in a precarious situation, and organizers say unionizing is one of the best ways to address these labour issues.

The road to dependence

Gig work isn’t a recent phenomenon, although the advent of digital on-demand service platforms accounts for a massive recent spike in Canadian gig workers. Statistics Canada reported a 70 per cent increase in the gig economy workforce from 2005 to 2016.

Currently, most digital gig work platforms classify their workers as independent contractors, meaning they don’t have to pay workers a minimum wage or grant them the right to unionize. However, many contract workers argue that they have been misclassified since a majority of them receive most or all of their income through ride-sharing and food delivery apps.

When workers from Foodora, a food delivery service that used bicycle couriers, began organizing in Canada, they argued that Foodora labelled workers as independent contractors to avoid providing adequate health and safety support.

The distinction between dependent and independent contractors is essential since dependent contractors are “economically dependent” on a single client. This provides them with certain legal rights that independent contractors don’t have, such as the option to unionize and reasonable notice of termination.

The Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) must classify temporary workers as dependent contractors instead of independent contractors in order for them to legally unionize. This provides an extra hurdle for gig workers wishing to take collective action.

So, with the support of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Foodora contract workers applied to be recognized as dependent.

In the OLRB’s landmark 2020 decision, the board held that “the structure of the ‎relationship between the courier and Foodora is such as to draw the conclusion that the terms ‎and conditions of the relationship render the courier economically dependent upon ‎Foodora.”

Foodora couriers were classified by the OLRB as dependent contractors because they relied on Foodora’s app to dictate their income, schedule, and route. With the board’s decision—a first for workers in the gig economy—Foodora contractors could now officially organize.

Foodsters United’s precedent

Two months after Foodora couriers gained the right to unionize, Foodora announced that it would be leaving Canada, five years after its 2015 launch, due to what it called a “saturated environment.” Foodora continues to operate in Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Foodora workers and CUPW negotiated a $3.46 million settlement but lost their jobs regardless, just as the pandemic was spreading across Canada.

Although Foodora left the Canadian market, Foodsters United remained. Without a central employer, the organization focused on building a membership base from other food delivery services, including Skip the Dishes and Uber Eats.

Gonsalves said the response to the union has been overwhelmingly positive among workers, adding that Gig Workers United is creating a community support system during dangerous and draining times.

“These conditions have been a mobilizing force in some ways,” he said. “We’ve gained a few members during the pandemic.”

Gonsalves added that food delivery couriers have become more receptive to the idea of joining unions because they’re experiencing issues exacerbated by COVID-19 like accessing washrooms and safety when entering restaurants. Couriers also said operating delivery apps while navigating snowy roads increased their risk of injury.

Gonsalves told The Pigeon that the organization hasn’t reached a stage where they’re ready to engage directly with employers to unionize. Instead, their current focus is building a strong membership base.

Still, Gig Workers United has proposed several actions to aid workers, including establishing a Gig Worker Joint Health and Safety Committee and reaching out to some Toronto City Councillors about public washroom access on its workers’ behalf.

As for the future, the organization says it’s planning an alternative food delivery co-operative, although this is still in its very early stages.

Uber Black organizers: ‘It’s about time.’

The Foodora case set the precedent for classifying gig workers as dependent contractors in Ontario.

Now, Uber Black drivers are fighting to determine membership and form their own union.  Uber Black is a car service provided by Uber, matching riders with luxury vehicles and top-rated drivers for a higher fee than standard UberX rides.

The 2020 OLRB decision spurred by Foodsters United gave gig workers like Uber Black drivers the necessary legal precedent to try and unionize.

“We want to see that ruling from the labour board that says these are employees,” Kevin Shimmin, one of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union members leading the Uber Black campaign, told The Pigeon.

“If we get that decision, that paves the way for gig economy workers to unionize across the board, at least in Ontario.”

Toronto Uber Black drivers applied to unionize with the UFCW on Jan. 10, 2020. Uber Black drivers must hold limousine licenses, making them a distinct group, whereas a driver only needs a provincial driver’s license to become an UberX driver.

UFCW decided to focus on Uber Black drivers first because there are only approximately 300 active Uber Black drivers in Toronto, as opposed to the current estimated 80,000 total Uber drivers in Toronto.

Shimmin said a smaller bargaining unit would be manageable and would allow UFCW to more easily set a precedent for app-based drivers in the province.

“Uber workers [are] essential workers and their employer has become way too wealthy during this pandemic,” Shimmin said. “It’s about time for […] some kind of security.”

Unlike in the Foodora case, the OLRB chose to determine whether the UFCW had the 40 per cent of members’ support necessary to move forward with the union, instead of first determining if Uber Black drivers were dependent contractors.

This means that in order to even trigger a vote to unionize, 40 per cent of Uber Black drivers in Toronto must agree to sign up as members and support unionization discussions.

In July 2020, the OLRB determined parameters for an Uber Black driver to be considered a member of the Uber Black voting group. Members had to have a limousine license and have driven for Uber Black at least two months before the vote in order to be considered eligible voting members.

Shimmin said this decision was a victory, as it eliminated around 600 names from the original membership list submitted by Uber. He explained that adding names to a membership list is a common tactic used by large companies to fight union campaigns, as it can make it harder to organize larger groups.

“What Uber did is they flooded the voters’ list. So even though we’re applying for approximately 300 workers, the list itself was more than a thousand people,” Shimmin said. “Even people who had not driven Uber Black in a very long time [were listed].”

Uber asked the board to reconsider their decision, but the OLRB said that their initial decision stood. Shimmin said that the UFCW and Uber Black organizers will continue in hearings to determine their exact membership list.

When asked to comment on the union hearings, a spokesperson from Uber told The Pigeon, “We are constantly working to get feedback from drivers and improve their experience while maintaining the main thing they love about it, having flexible work.”

Entering ‘uncharted territory.’

Although Uber mentioned flexibility as a benefit to workers in its statement, the unstructured nature of the work also has a cost for Uber Black drivers. These drivers originally applied to unionize to address many issues, notably fighting for an hourly minimum wage.

Shimmin said that Uber Black drivers in Toronto primarily service airport travellers, and often wait for hours at the airport for an incoming flight, only for a client to cancel the ride. This caused drivers to lose a significant amount of time that Uber doesn’t compensate them for.

Additionally, the UFCW is currently challenging how the customer rating system negatively impacts drivers’ job security.

Uber Black drivers must maintain a rating of 4.85 stars (out of five) or higher to continue working. As a result, receiving a poor rating from a customer who was intoxicated, racist, or abusive could cause Uber to terminate the driver.

In addition to current hearings, the UFCW has also filed unfair labour practice charges against Uber. The organization is arguing that Uber has violated sections 70, 72, 76 and 86 of the Labour Relations Act by launching a new driving service, which it alleges is an attempt to interfere with its union campaign.

Soon after the OLRB’s decision to eliminate names from Uber’s membership list, the company launched Uber Premier, a luxury car service similar to Uber Black, but one that doesn’t require drivers to hold a limousine license. Uber Premier is currently available in certain Canadian cities, such as Montreal.

The UFCW alleges this launch is an attempted violation of the bargaining unit for Uber Black drivers, introducing a massive new pool of drivers into the original 300-person bargaining unit posed by the UFCW.

Negotiations are ongoing and the future remains uncertain.

“It’s uncharted territory. We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Shimmin said of the future.

He said that many Uber Black drivers are still in precarious economic situations, and have had to switch to driving Uber X—the service’s cheapest option—to make ends meet.

“Really, it’s just outrageous as a society that we would watch a company like Uber basically profit from the pandemic while its employees are struggling more than ever,” Shimmin said.

Gig Workers United set the legal precedent for the classification of gig workers as dependent contractors in Ontario. Now, as the hearings for Uber Black drivers continue, Ontario gig workers wait to see what the future might hold for their right to unionize.

Sabrina Michael is a Toronto-based freelance writer and collector of library fees. She writes about labour, lifestyle, and culture anywhere she can. 

Like this article?

We’ve got even better things in store, with the help of our incredible donors.

Our donors make what we do possible. By making a monthly contribution to The Pigeon, you would be directly helping us to further our cross-Canadian coverage. We devote a portion of our earning specifically towards paying marginalized contributors, like we did in our recent Tracing Threads project. Other ways we spend donor contributions include upgrading our website, reaching out to new readers, and paying research expenses.

Can you become a monthly donor for as little as $10 a month today?

With your financial help, we can continue to share unique stories, prioritize marginalized voices, and create positive change in the Canadian media landscape.


Related Articles