Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A food delivery courier rides an e-bike in Toronto on Jan. 3.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Viet Vu is manager of economic research at The Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University.

It started with a promise of freedom – freedom to be your own boss, freedom to work whenever and however much you wanted. When Uber launched in 2011, many heralded an era of “gig” work. This new arrangement worked for many people, from mothers re-entering the workforce to new immigrants, allowing them to meaningfully participate in the economy. Soon, competitors such as Lyft began to proliferate, and the pandemic saw food delivery apps such as DoorDash and SkipTheDishes also gain prominence.

However, for some, this sense of freedom was an illusion. They could not negotiate with a faceless algorithm determining their pay, and systems such as surge pricing, which created incentives for them to drive one more trip, meant they were not as free to “pick when to work” as they initially thought. When drivers had complaints, they often dealt with customer support agents as opposed to a boss. These were among the reasons these workers recently staged a global “strike.”

The core issue at play is that these workers are considered independent businesses, in contract with ride-hailing companies to provide their service, as opposed to employees. As a result, key labour regulations, such as entitlement to a minimum wage, unionization, sick leave and other workplace protections, do not apply to them.

To solve this, we may need to come up with entirely new labour institutions. Classifying these workers as employees may not work for the workers themselves. These companies will likely have to invest in a fleet of company-owned vehicles (both cars and bikes) that employees will have to drive. It will also likely increase surveillance of workers to ensure they meet performance expectations (as opposed to the current gamified system that pushes drivers to accept one extra ride). It could take away the flexibility that originally encouraged so many to engage in this kind of work and reduce some vulnerable communities’ engagement with the labour market.

Baril and Tufts: Gig-work platforms are destructive and exploitative – something must be done

Palmerin-Velasco: If we ignore the benefits of the gig economy, we risk making it worse for everyone

Some have called for the right for these workers to unionize, to gain the right to bargain collectively and reach a fair deal. Yet union-negotiated collective agreements tend to result in standardized contracts that offer workers less flexibility to dictate how and when they work.

Instead of putting these workers into existing boxes, perhaps what we need is to come up with a new labour framework that allows them to negotiate pay and benefits collectively, as opposed to individually, without shutting out workers who genuinely enjoy the flexibility. Some, as a result, have called for an independent institution to resolve disputes between drivers and platforms.

One way to accomplish this may be to create a new agency with the legal authority to determine whether a company relies substantially on these contract-based workers, then compel it to provide a range of metrics for working conditions and pay and publicize them to workers. Workers could then review these metrics and submit a formal complaint, with the agency playing an arbitrator’s role if a significant number of workers were to demand an improvement in working conditions. In essence, an institution that carries some of the powers unions have today to correct informational imbalances and plays a dispute arbitrator’s role to ensure a fair outcome.

We live in a new age, and that may mean that our traditional institutions do not apply to new ways of doing business. But that does not mean we ignore the rights of workers, which allow our economy to function in an inclusive way.

Interact with The Globe