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An Uber driver is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl DyckDARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton says his government will act within weeks to help the many freelance “gig workers” who deliver food or drive passengers from place to place – but won’t say if they will be granted the same rights and protections given to regular employees.

“We are going to be moving in the weeks ahead,” Mr. McNaughton said in an interview on Monday with The Globe and Mail. “Everything we’re doing will lead to bigger paycheques, more workplace protections, more opportunities for workers across the province.”

But he would not elaborate on his plan, even as the province’s Opposition NDP called for changes that would make it easier for everyone from Uber and Lyft drivers to cleaners and home-care workers, all now classified as independent contractors, to be considered full employees and become entitled to minimum wage and vacation pay.

On Monday, NDP MPP Peggy Sattler, at an event alongside unions and gig-worker groups, said she was introducing a bill that would implement a simple legal test – now law in California and many U.S. states but nowhere yet in Canada – to determine if workers are freelancers or employees. The bill would also put the onus on employers to prove their workers should be considered independent contractors.

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That reverse-onus rule had been brought in by Ontario’s previous Liberal government – in labour legislation the current Progressive Conservative government scrapped just months after Premier Doug Ford’s election in 2018.

Mr. McNaughton tabled his own new bill on Monday with a list of other labour-law changes unveiled over the past week, including a ban on non-compete clauses, a crackdown on exploitative temp agencies and new rules forcing businesses to allow truckers and delivery workers to use their washrooms.

But pressure has been building on the government to act on the gig-worker issue, as tens of thousands of people have ended up relying on app-based dispatch services to get work that critics say often fails to hit the minimum wage and offers no benefits.

In the summer, Mr. McNaughton convened a panel on the future of the gig economy that consulted with unions and industry and is due to deliver a final report shortly.

Ms. Sattler and other critics have pointed out that the committee has no gig-worker or union members, calling the process rushed. She also decried a proposal from U.S.-based ride-hailing giant Uber to institute a “flexible benefits fund” for app-based workers. She said this would create a new “subclass of worker with lesser rights” and said she believed Mr. Ford intended to be Uber’s “willing partner.”

Mr. McNaughton said he had “made a decision to go in a different direction” than the Uber proposal, but would not reveal his own plan.

He said the changes he has made so far show he is serious about siding with workers, especially those left in the lurch during the COVID-19 pandemic. His critics point out that Mr. Ford quashed a minimum-wage hike and dragged his feet on guaranteeing paid sick days during the pandemic.

Brice Sopher, a bike courier for Uber Eats who serves as the vice-president of the union group Gig Workers United, said he had his pay slashed by 50 per cent during the pandemic, leaving him reliant on tips and at times making less than $12 an hour – well below the province’s minimum wage of $14.35 an hour.

Mr. Sopher said his group supports the NDP’s proposal. He said he gave testimony to Ontario’s panel on the issue and met with Mr. McNaughton. But he said he does not have faith that the current government is going to make any significant changes.

“The impression I get from this government is that there’s an election coming – they have a horrible record with COVID, and now they have a strategy of trying to seem like they’re on the side of working-class people in this province,” he said.

The misclassification of workers as freelance contractors is at the heart of a class action launched by a Toronto law firm on behalf of Uber drivers. In several rulings around the world, courts have declared either that gig workers are employees or deserve similar rights.

With a report from Laura Stone

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