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The purveyors of the gig economy never had much time for old laws and old ideas.

Rising from the wellspring of the future – San Francisco – companies such as Uber sold people convenience with a couple taps on suddenly ubiquitous smartphones. Want a ride? Presto. Want dinner delivered? Click.

As these companies rapidly expanded, they exploited strong consumer demand to roll over a lot of local opposition, and launched a permanent war against existing rules.

Uber and others are now embroiled in their biggest fight yet, on many geographical fronts. The legal tide, however, is running against them, as a series of court decisions and new laws pile up in favour of the workers who drive the cars and deliver food to front doors.

The essential question hits at the heart of the gig economy: Are the workers independent contractors, or are they employees of a company?

Ride-share and delivery-app players insist they are tech companies that facilitate transactions, and that any human labour involved is unrelated to their core business. It’s a fanciful claim, as though a company like Uber would exist without drivers. Yet it is a key pillar of their business models.

Since the drivers are classified as contractors rather than employees, the companies are not obliged to pay a minimum wage or overtime, or provide rest breaks. And never mind benefits and the right to collectively bargain.

When Uber listed on the stock market last year, its regulatory filing said reclassifying its drivers as employees was a major business risk and that, if it happened, it “would require us to fundamentally change our business model.”

In other words, Uber’s business is founded, at least in part, on underpaying its workers.

There’s been a widespread, multiyear push, often led by workers, to challenge Uber and others. California last year made legislative changes, after a related court ruling. The new law clarified the role of gig economy workers, and took effect Jan. 1.

Uber and Lyft ignored it and, in May, state and civic officials sued. The companies lost in court earlier this month, and threatened to shut down their businesses in California. Last week they won a temporary reprieve in court, but the judge flatly stated that the companies’ argument that their drivers are tangential “flies in the face of economic reality and common sense.”

Similar rulings have landed in France and Britain. In Canada, after Foodora workers won the right to unionize, the Berlin-based food-delivery app company quit the Canadian market, blaming competition. A case against Uber launched in 2017 by a Toronto driver reached the Supreme Court of Canada last year; this June, the court ruled Uber’s arbitration rules – which dictate cases must be heard in Amsterdam – were “unconscionable.” A class-action lawsuit over employment terms can now proceed.

Gig workers constituted 8.2 per cent of the Canadian work force in 2016, a recent Statistics Canada study found, up from 5.5 per cent in 2005. Some gig workers are simply making part-time money in a side hustle, but for many it’s their sole source of income. Such workers tend to be lower-income Canadians, and are often immigrants.

The coronavirus pandemic further exposed the tenuous nature of the gig economy. Big holes in Canada’s social safety net led to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, because many people, including gig workers, could not access traditional employment insurance. Last week, Ottawa announced additional changes to address this discrepancy.

Meanwhile, Uber and others continue to fight. In California, they’re pushing for an exemption from the new rules through a November ballot measure they’ve poured more than US$100-million into.

Gig workers have fought for their rights in court. But there is an important role for governments, as California showed. In Canada, the federal Liberals in last year’s election promised “greater labour protections” for digital gig workers.

It is time for more political action. Last year, this page made the case that low-skill and low-income people have it hard enough in the new economy without it also robbing them of basic rights and forcing down their wages. There should be an answer that allows the convenient offerings of app-based companies to continue, without the costs being shouldered by the workers who most need protection.

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