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Rideshare and food delivery drivers hold a protest outside of Uber’s Toronto office to call for better pay and working conditions, in Toronto on Feb. 14.Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press

Émile Baril is a doctoral candidate at York University. Steven Tufts is an associate professor at York University.

International students and other immigrants are vital to the growing “gig” and “platform” economies of rich countries. In larger cities, their employment in low-wage, short-term gig jobs are enabled by platforms such as Uber UBER-N and SkipTheDishes that connect workers, service providers and consumers. There are no discriminatory job interviews demanding “Canadian job experience” to gain access to the apps. Researchers have called this the “platformization of migration,” as immigrants integrate into the labour market.

As consumers, we enjoy having pizza and pad thai delivered to our doorsteps at 2 a.m., but there are hidden social and economic costs. We have to ask how sustainable the platform economy is, given it is largely built on precarious labour, such as international students cycling through the labour market. What happens when the supply of these student workers is reduced, or these workers organize to challenge status quo, as they currently are in Canada and many countries?

The platform model requires a supply of cheap and flexible labour, and international students are perfect for these companies, as they need quick access to work at times they are not in class. The profitability of these companies requires depressing wages and working conditions of platform workers.

Since 2018, Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive officer of Uber, has successfully led the company to profitability by lowering wages, increasing unpaid waiting time of drivers, and adjusting the algorithm assignments to exploit those more willing to take the lesser-paid passenger trips. In Toronto, RideFairTO and the Rideshare Drivers Association of Ontario (RDAO) just released a report debunking Uber’s claim of high median drivers’ earnings, calculating that drivers only earn $6.37 per hour when unpaid driving time and expenses are included.

The conditions of food delivery drivers may be worse. They face dangerous traffic, as most deliver on bikes or e-bikes, and receive even lower fares. Accidents are frequent, and the lack of benefits and social protection when injuries occur can be costly. In some cases, there are further layers of exploitation. For example, in France, people with citizenship or other legal status “rent” their food delivery app accounts to undocumented workers.

There is resistance as workers fight this new form of exploitation. The recent Valentine’s Day strike of ride-haling workers is the U.S. and Britain protesting their working conditions is only a recent example of a global movement. In Toronto, organizations such as RDAO and Gig Workers United have been organizing platformed migrant workers for years, beginning with the struggles to recognize ride-hail and food delivery workers as employees in employment standards legislation.

These organizations continue despite the immense resources and lobbying power of multinational platform companies. These firms know they face an existential threat if the supply of cheap labour is eroded by reduced immigration, the regulation of platform work, and any gains made by collective demands of unionized workers. When Foodora workers organized in Toronto a few years ago, the company exited Canada altogether. The $3.46-million settlement the company eventually reached with workers was a first in the country.

We need to decide what type of gig and platform economy we want for the future. At the very least, we need to rethink how platform work is regulated so that the most exploitive practices are diminished. We need both labour laws that address the misclassification of these workers as independent contractors, and immigration laws that offer safe and decent migration journeys for international students. Courts in countries such as Spain and Italy have already taken steps in that direction with employment regulations and rulings specifically tailored to these new forms of platform labour.

A more interventionist step would be to make ride hailing and food delivery apps more democratically controlled. We know that there is a tendency toward centralization and monopoly. Because of the network effects of platformization, a small number of companies dominate through mergers and aggressive acquisitions. But what if governments supported the development of local co-operative platforms jointly owned and administered by those providing these services? Eva Coop, CoopCycle and are examples of small organizations providing local alternatives to Airbnb ABNB-Q, Lyft LYFT-Q and Uber Eats.

Perhaps the deeper question is how to “de-platform” immigrant labour market integration all together. Do we need ride-hailing services that destroy traditional taxi services or food delivery platforms that provide consumer convenience at such a high social and economic cost? De-platforming our labour market and creating better jobs should be the long-term goal, as the status quo is far less economically sustainable than we imagine.

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