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Foodsters United is looking to unionize Foodora couriers in Toronto. Thomas McKechnie (pictured) is one of the members helping to organize the union.Foodsters United/Handout

Unionization in the gig economy might sound like an oxymoron, but for those who feel mistreated by the platforms they work for, independence is beside the point.

While many professionals are choosing to work as freelancers and contract workers, gig economy workers are just as likely to be working independently out of necessity, says Alex Kurth, a courier in Toronto for popular restaurant delivery platform Foodora Inc.

“There are people who do this because the lifestyle appeals to them, but there are also people doing this because they don’t have better choices, and would prefer a more stable and less precarious working situation,” says Mr. Kurth, who is also an organizer with Foodsters United, a group of Toronto-based couriers seeking unionization.

While the ease of signing on with a gig economy platform makes it appealing to those looking to fill a gap between jobs, Mr. Kurth says re-entering the traditional workforce isn’t as simple. In his experience, many people end up working in the gig economy longer than they anticipate.

“There's always going to be someone more desperate than me and willing to take a worse job with worse working conditions because they don't have any other options,” he says.

Mr. Kurth says the relationship between Foodora and its workers has deteriorated since he began making deliveries 3½ years ago; that’s what inspired him to help establish Foodsters United, joining a number of organizations globally that are looking to change working conditions for gig economy workers through unionization.

In Britain, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is currently looking to extend the benefits of Britain’s worker status – which include guaranteed minimum wage, paid holidays and sick leave – to couriers such as himself who work for the European food delivery platform Deliveroo. Earlier this year, the union won such benefits for medical test couriers of Doctor’s Laboratory, a British provider of clinical diagnostic services.

“There are some that are very resistant towards collective bargaining, unionizing and organizing,” said Greg Howard, the branch secretary for IWGB’s courier and logistics branch, and a rider for Deliveroo. “The worker status that we’re trying to push for, you still have that flexibility, you still have the autonomy of an independent contractor, but the difference is you have more protection and pay, so we try to get riders to understand that.”

In New York, the Independent Driver’s Guild (IDG) secured the first and only minimum-wage requirements for ride-hailing app drivers in the United States in late 2018, and is also credited with putting pressure on lawmakers to require an in-app tipping option. Members are also now eligible to receive free telemedicine, mental-health counselling and death benefits.

IDG’s executive director Brendan Sexton says the proportion of workers in the gig economy that are pro-unionization are “pretty typical of any given work force.”

“You’re never going to walk into any shop and have 100 per cent of the work force line up at your door,” he said. “You’re going to have percentages of workers that are die-hard activists and participate on a regular basis, another percentage that want to be members, and a percentage of drivers that just don’t care one way or another.”

In an e-mail statement, ride-hailing firm Lyft said that "people drive with Lyft because of the flexibility it provides them to earn when, where and for how long they want. Access to this type of flexible earning opportunity can make a big difference for drivers who are in between jobs or looking to supplement their income.”

David Albert, managing director of Foodora Canada, echoed that sentiment. “Foodora couriers are independent contractors in order to give them more flexibility and freedom to choose when and how they work,” he said in an e-mail. “Foodora prides itself on providing fair and competitive compensation for its couriers. Across Canada, Foodora riders earn an hourly equivalent average of $21 per hour.”

Mr. Kurth, however, disagrees with that characterization. Foodsters United is seeking to have its members reclassified as “dependant contractors” under the Ontario Employment Standards Act on the basis that they don’t actually have the freedom and autonomy that most associate with the job.

Unlike many gig economy platforms, Foodora couriers can’t begin working whenever they choose. Instead, individual shifts of two to six hours are assigned weekly on a first-come, first-serve basis, with priority given to top performers.

“They try to sell it as this free-wheeling, be-your-own-boss thing, but you sign up for that shift, you are committed to those hours,” Mr. Kurth says. “They tell us what to do, they tell us where to be, they tell us when to be there; there is no independence there.”

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