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Uber announced it would allow its workers across the country to use UFCW union representatives when contesting issues related to their account status with Uber.Eric Risberg/The Associated Press

Uber Canada and the United Food and Commercial Workers union have struck an agreement that would see more than 100,000 drivers and delivery couriers in Canada receive union representation in resolving disputes with the Silicon Valley tech giant.

Both sides hailed the agreement as a “historic” step toward achieving “common ground” in a long-standing debate over the employment classification of gig economy workers. But critics, including other labour groups, are voicing concern over the agreement, saying it does not fundamentally pave the way for better labour standards for Uber workers.

On Thursday, Uber announced it would allow its workers across the country to use UFCW union representatives when contesting issues related to their account status with Uber, such as deactivation. Uber and UFCW would jointly cover the cost of these services, meaning that drivers and delivery couriers would not have to pay annual or monthly union dues.

Gig economy the next target in Ontario labour-law changes

But the company, like other major ride hailing and delivery services, still classifies its drivers and couriers as independent contractors, not employees. And the agreement does not change that status.

In Thursday’s statement, Uber’s senior vice-president of global rides and platforms, Andrew Macdonald, lauded the “common ground” reached between UFCW and Uber, and said the agreement would “blaze a new trail” for app-based workers.

But labour lawyers and advocates for gig economy workers say the agreement, while unprecedented, does very little to move the needle on issues such as minimum wage, vacation pay and health benefits, which employees are entitled to, but contractors are not. Other unions, such as Gig Workers United, have been pushing for employee status and those benefits for years.

“This does not mean that those who do work for Uber are in any way collectively unionized,” said Andrew Monkhouse, managing partner at Monkhouse Law, a Toronto-based labour and employment law firm. “In fact, it seems like this is a half-measure which could prevent full unionization and counter the efforts to reclassify Uber workers as employees,” he told The Globe and Mail.

Independent contractors do not contribute to federal programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance. Nor do they qualify for a minimum wage and other benefits.

UFCW has been fighting for the unionization of Uber drivers for years, in part by representing 300 Uber Black drivers in Toronto – who drive luxury vehicles – in applying for unionization with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The union is also leading organizing efforts in British Columbia and Alberta. Two of its key demands have been to end what it calls the “unfair” deactivation of driver’s accounts and the “unfair” ratings system.

Drivers and delivery couriers are subject to ratings by customers, and these ratings can affect workers’ employment status with Uber – if a driver or delivery person, for example, receives numerous complaints from customers, they can be deactivated from the platform, cutting off their source of income.

According to Paul Meinema, national president of UFCW Canada, the account deactivation problem was a particular point of frustration for drivers and delivery couriers the union has spoken to over the years. “One of the biggest fears drivers and others have is to wake up and find out they have arbitrarily been deactivated. What is good about this final agreement is that it offers everyone who does work for Uber, the opportunity to have a third-party arbitrator on this and other issues,” he told The Globe.

But Gig Workers United, a community-based union that is fighting for the reclassification of all gig economy workers across the country, said that Thursday’s agreement is concerning because it allows Uber to publicly codify some form of union representation for its drivers and delivery couriers without actually making these workers employees.

“What this does is it enshrines Uber’s current business model, under the progressive guise of allowing its workers to unionize,” said Jennifer Scott, an Uber Eats delivery courier and president of Gig Workers United. Ms. Scott said that the agreement between UFCW and Uber caught Gig Workers United by surprise, even though both unions have worked alongside the Ontario Federation of Labour to push for full employee status for gig workers. “We did not know this was in the works,” she said.

There is some precedent for Uber’s agreement with UFCW, according to Veena Dubal, a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, whose research focuses on the intersection of law, technology and precarious work. She says Uber tried striking a similar deal with unions in California, but has not yet managed to come to a definitive agreement with any one union.

Uber and other apps won big in November, 2020, in California when Proposition 22, a ballot measure that aimed to keep app workers classified as independent contractors, was passed.

“This should be understood as a coup for Uber, not for the thousands of Canadian drivers whom the company misclassifies,” Prof. Dubal said.

But Mr. Meinema takes a different approach to the issue. He says UFCW is fully committed to the idea that all app workers should have better rights, but a classification of the status of workers should not be a determining factor in negotiating with Uber. “This is the first step in a long process. Of course there is a lot of work to be done, but we think it is a good start to increasing and enhancing standards for Uber workers,” he said.

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