Jordan: I was doing my grocery shopping at 10 30 last night, and by doing my shopping, I mean, I was picking things out on an app that somebody else would get for me at the grocery store the next day, and deliver to my front door. And if for some reason I couldn’t get a spot on that app, Instacart, then I guess we’d probably have ordered delivery for dinner using another app that relies on another person to pick things up out there in the scary world and bring them to me. Yes, I feel guilty about that, but not enough to stop using these apps and I doubt that I’m alone in that. Right now we’re relying on workers and the gig economy more than ever, and their job is far more dangerous than ever.
And most of them don’t get hero pay or have job security or benefits. Some of them though, have been fighting hard to change that. And some of them have even won, including a group here in Canada.
News clip: The provinces labor board has ruled that Foodora couriers more closely resemble employees rather than independent contractors creating a groundbreaking precedent for others in the gig economy.
Jordan: So today we’ll tell you their story. We’ll also tell you what happened right after that historic victory. And we will do that as soon as Claire, who is just back from vacation, gives us an update on COVID 19 this weekend. Claire, welcome back. Where did you go?
Claire: Hey, yeah, I took a few days off last week, but didn’t go anywhere obviously. The furthest I went was to the park down the street.
Jordan: I am just glad that you came back, and before you update us, can you explain to listeners when we’ll hear your updates now? Cause we’re changing that up a bit.
Claire: Yeah. Well, you know, I think we’re kind of over the initial shock of COVID 19 shutting down the world, and we’ve been hearing the phrase ‘new normal’ a lot. So there will be fewer news updates at the top of the show from now on. Basically a couple of times a week, we’ll update you on anything big happening with COVID 19 in Canada.
Jordan: So yes, you will still get the news you need, but maybe not every day. And of course, if God forbid, a second wave hits and things do go downhill. We will then be right here going down that hill with you every day. And speaking of a second wave, Claire, let me guess, does your report today involve some idiots in Toronto who were doing their best to make that happen this weekend?
Claire: Yeah. Well, that was what everyone was talking about this weekend because it was nice and warm out in Toronto and people wanted to go out, so there were these huge crowds at Trinity Bellwoods park on Saturday. Thousands of people were there with practically no physical distancing. The city of Toronto called this dangerous behaviour, saying that this threatened to undo all of the work done over the past 10 weeks. So on Sunday, the world a lot more enforcement officers in the park making sure that people were keeping that two meter distance.
And this is happening as the number of cases of COVID 19 is actually going up in Ontario. And perhaps coincidentally, two weeks after mother’s day. In Alberta, the cities of Calgary and Brooks are joining the rest of the province in allowing bars, restaurants, and hair salons to open today, and there will be more restrictions lifted for those cities in particular on June 1st. And in Quebec, there are concerns about an upcoming heat wave, a minimum of 30 degrees Celsius for three days starting tomorrow. The concern is people in longterm care homes who don’t have air conditioning. Longterm care homes, as we know, have been hit the hardest throughout this pandemic in Canada, especially in Quebec. So the Quebec council for the protection of patients says it’s ready to go to court on this one.
As of Sunday evening, 84,699 cases of COVID 19 in Canada, with 6,515 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Sara Mojtehedzadeh is the work and wealth reporter for The Toronto Star. She is a frequent guest on this podcast and now she is a podcaster as well. Her new show is called Hustle. It’s about the David versus Goliath battle for workers’ rights in the gig economy, and episode two, drops today. Hey, Sara.
Jordan: You told us about this podcast when we had you on a couple of months ago, and you’ve been putting the whole thing together while the landscape has been shifting dramatically. So why don’t you just take us way back to the beginning and tell me about the gig economy and Foodora in particular when you first began this project, which is a little over a year ago?
Sara: Yeah, that’s right. It’s sort of my year anniversary of reporting on this story, and there has really been so many twists and turns over over the course of the year, some of which we sort of knew would come. A big battle at the labor board, an effort to try and unionize Foodora couriers and then some that were just totally unanticipated. Obviously the pandemic being the major one there. So it’s been a really interesting year of following what was really a unique kind of first attempt to change working conditions for workers in the gig economy, which I think is a word that we’re all sort of familiar with, and we’re so used to using apps to get an Uber or Lyft or order a meal to our doorstep.
But often we don’t interrogate what is kind of happening behind the scenes. And so that was sort of the inspiration for taking a deeper dive into what the realities of this kind of work are like.
Jordan: And you followed a group of Foodora couriers for a year. Just tell me about them. Who are they? How did they meet? What are they like?
Sara: Yeah, so Foodora couriers are really a diverse group of workers in the city. We’ve all probably seen them on their bikes with a big pink Foodora bag on the back, or a Foodora jacket. But they’re not just cyclists, they’re also drivers who go around the city delivering meals.
And I think a lot of people kind of assume that worker’s doing this kind of job are often like young college students. Especially downtown, a lot of the folks that you’ll see on their bikes are younger people. But the reality is that the workforce, when I started meeting couriers, was so much more diverse.
A lot of drivers who are working in more suburban areas are new Canadians who were supporting their families and haven’t been able to find work in their field. It’s people who really do this as a full time job. It is their career, really. They’ve been doing it for years.
And I think that the kind of overwhelming feeling that I got from talking to careers over the course of the past year were just the fears and concerns around the protections on the job, and a sense that this is a job that has really kind of fallen through the cracks, that disentitles workers from a lot of supports that many people take for granted. And I think most fundamentally is a job where many expressed feeling like there was a lack of respect. And one courier, Chris Williams, who was involved in the union drive kind of summed up why couriers started organizing and trying to change that.
Clip: Chris Williams: The broader issues are around health and safety, wages and dignity and all of those kind of stem from this other issue, which is Foodora’s misclassification of their couriers, calling them independent contractors instead of employees or dependent contractors. And that misclassification allowed them to avoid taking any responsibility for couriers.
Clip: Sara: You talked about the goals of forming a union and one of them was dignity. Why is that so important?
Clip: Chris Williams: It’s the hardest issue to define, but in some ways it’s the most important. Couriers have value. And I think it’s the most important because… that’s personally, by the way, I think it’s the most important, because I think it’s the one that justifies everything else. That’s why wages are so important in many ways for me is because it’s hard to live a dignified existence if your wages are too low or uncertain. If you don’t know whether you’ll make your daily quota today or not. And obviously health and safety connects to dignity because it’s hard to be now when you’re wearing constantly about your health, you know?
Clip: Sara: That takes a toll.
Clip: Chris Williams: It takes an effect.
Jordan: I want to explore that a little bit more, but first I find the idea that we can talk about these jobs as having fallen through the cracks kind of crazy cause can you give me a sense of the scale of the gig economy in Canada? Cause it’s everywhere, right?
Sara: Yeah. And I think one interesting thing in kind of unpacking the gig economy and this podcast, was understanding, what does that actually mean. And is it a new phenomenon, or is it something that’s kind of been percolating for a long time?
And I think that when you kind of put it into historical context, you can see that, although apps like Uber are new, the roots of this kind of work go back much farther. And so when we’re trying to quantify how many people are working in this fashion, on the surface, it’s about 1.7 million Canadians are employed in the gig economy.
So they’re getting their work through a digital kind of platform. That’s a sub sub sector of people who are also gig workers in some way, in the sense that they’re precarious. They’re often classified as independent contractors rather than employees. They’re in a casual kind of job.
And that proportion of worker is much bigger than 1.7 million or 8%. In Toronto for example, we know that half of us are now in jobs that have some kind of precarity attached to them. Whether it’s the fact that it’s a casual job or there’s no benefits or it’s a contract.
I think a lot of people see the gig economy as fitting into this broader picture of how work has changed for a lot of us.
Jordan: Do we have any idea what the financial reality of that is? Because I feel like I could never figure it out because it must vary so wildly between people who do it for pocket money and people who rely on these platforms to make a living.
Sara: Yeah. And I think one of the challenges has been that there’s been a real lack of good data on that. Recently in December actually, statistics Canada released its first in depth report on what the gig economy really looks like. And that was using a tax filing data from 2016. So even from 2016 until now, the picture has likely changed.
But this is the first kind of substantive snapshot of what it’s like to be a gig worker. And what that study found was that the annual median income, which I think many people, their eyes would pop. The annual median income is $4,300 a year. And you sort of take a step back and ask, ‘okay, but is that their main source of income?’
And the answer is half of the people in this survey did have other jobs. So the 4,300 was not their only source of income, but the other half relied solely on that income. So I think it just really does paint a pretty stark picture of the type of income and earnings that people are making in this world.
And as we sort of investigated what it was like to be a Foodora courier, we did find that if you’re working through Foodora full time, yet you know you’re not making a lot of money. I think people would be quite shocked to learn how little money these types of workers are making.
And part of the reason for that is because they’re often classified as independent contractors. They’re not entitled to minimum wage, so they may be able to scrape together a minimum wage or a bit better through tips or fulfilling lots of orders or picking up lots of people who want a lift somewhere.
But the income is erratic, and it often falls short of a living wage.
Jordan: I want you to take us down to the ground, to the story you told now if I could. And the last time we talked to you was right after a historic decision, and you told us the story then, but could you maybe for people who didn’t hear that episode, just briefly take us through the careers that you followed and their fight up to that decision? And then we’ll get into the last two months because that’s been nuts.
Sara: Yeah. So what was really novel about this story was that we know that workers who are working through an app are making up a bigger part of our economy and what the Foodora couriers decided that they wanted to do, was to join a union and hope that this way of organizing would lead to stronger protections on the job. But there were some major hurdles in accomplishing that. The biggest one being that they were classified by Foodora as independent contractors, which meant they did not have the legal right to join a union. So they had to overcome this huge legal hurdle of trying to prove to the labor board that this job classification is incorrect. ‘We’ve been misclassified and we should have an employment status that is reflective of our actual working conditions and gives us the right to join a union.’ In Ontario there’s two kinds of options for that. One is a full blown employee, sort of traditional employment relationship that many of us would associate with turning up at an office from nine til five.
Or there’s this kind of middle ground called a dependent contractor, which is someone who doesn’t really look like a traditional employee. They probably enjoy quite a bit of freedom and flexibility on the job, but equally, they’re precarious. And they’re economically dependent on whoever is providing them with work.
You know, they’re not sort of the self employed entrepreneur that is the legal definition of an independent contractor. So they went to the labor board and there were months of hearings with both sides kind of trading evidence over how these workers should be classified. Foodora’s position obviously, was that they were giving these couriers a ton of freedom on the job. They could work for whoever they wanted. They could choose when they want to work and that they were true sort of entrepreneurs. They were independent contractors. And the couriers and their prospective union, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers were saying, no. The app in many ways controls the conditions that couriers work in. They can’t act as true entrepreneurs because they can’t cut their own deal with a restaurant to deliver food. They can’t give a customer a promo code. They are working within the confines of the app.
Sara: And they won that battle. So in February there was this major decision, the first of its kind that said, ‘yes, these couriers are dependent contractors and they have the right to join a union.’
Jordan: And what was the expectation? Both in your mind and in the minds of experts you talked to, but also in the courier’s minds of what would happen in the days and weeks that followed that ruling. Cause it was huge at the time.
Sara: Yeah. I think there is an initial moment for couriers of real jubilation. It was really a tough battle. They had to not only pull together all that evidence, but they had to drum up enough support amongst fellow couriers for the campaign as a whole.
And that’s really difficult when you don’t know any of your colleagues, you’re all individually cycling or driving around the city. There’s no office. There’s no way to get to know your colleagues. So they were really starting from ground zero trying to build up a community of workers.
So I think it felt like a real moment of celebration. There was also a sort of dose of reality injected into that because both couriers and the union knew that this was only step one and that what the victory set up was another round of kind of legal wrangling with Foodora over who would potentially join the union, whose vote counts to join the union.
So it was the first step and it opened the door to further negotiations to actually officially join the union. And that would have been another tough round of legal back and forth. But I think couriers were feeling good. They were feeling confident about going into this next phase.
Then everything got upended when the Corona virus hit.
Jordan: So tell me about what Foodora did in response, after the decision came down and then we’ll talk a little bit about COVID 19.
Sara: Yeah. So initially when the decision came down, Foodora said, ‘we’re taking a look at it, we’re going to act in good faith, we’re going to see what it means for our business model, and for now it’s business as usual’. Obviously it was late February, so that was about to be thrown out the window for all of us. But it seems like things were just sort of trucking along and obviously there was always the risk that, when workers organize and challenge the prevailing business model in which they are working, that the employer says, I don’t want anything to do with this. And so I think there was always a little bit of fear or at least acknowledgement that there was the potential that Foodora would just leave, and say, ‘we don’t want to operate here in Canada if we’re going to have to be dealing with a union and legal wrangling and all the rest of it’.
But the pandemic hits and I think we really can’t separate all of this from just how topsy turvy the world became. But the pandemic hits initially, I think it impacted everyone’s business model, but slowly it seems like, based on the emails that were coming from Foodora, that orders were doing well. There was an increase in customer demand.
But in the midst of that, the company announced that they were shutting down, that they were going to leave Canada and they’d be gone in a matter of two weeks.
Jordan: Did they give any explanation as to why?
Sara: Their explanation was that essentially the market was too squeezed, it was too competitive, and they were unable to grow in the Canadian market. They said explicitly that it had nothing to do with the ongoing unionization effort. Couriers questioned that, they felt that the timing was suspicious. The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint saying they believe that Foodora is just trying to evade the potential for unionization.
It’s very difficult at this stage to assess Foodora’s claims because we don’t have full access to their financial details. But what kind of played out over the next few days was quite a sort of confusing set of events where Foodora announces that they’re leaving, says they can’t grow in the Canadian market. The next day their parent company releases their quarterly results and they’re great. They seem to be thriving. In the next subsequent days Foodora starts insolvency proceedings in Toronto, in Canada. So that threw another kind of wrench into the works. And we’re still waiting for that process to unfold to see what Foodora’s true financial picture was. But it certainly was, I think a sad and frustrating, closing of that chapter for a lot of careers who felt very angry about the timing, about the implications for them in the middle of a pandemic, and just the lack of protection and support that many of them found themselves in, not just because of Foodora, but because really our whole system has not been set up to protect workers like them. Gig workers.
Jordan: What’s that been like for them over the past couple of months? Being relied on by people who are lucky enough to be able to afford that kind of stuff more than ever. While fighting this, and preparing for whatever’s to come.
Sara: I think the dominant feeling that I got from couriers was the huge sense of frustration. Frustration at how their working conditions were handled during the pandemic.
Initially when the pandemic started, there were real complaints and fears over at the lack of protective equipment provided by Foodora, and beyond that, the inability really to say no to work that was potentially unsafe. Some couriers were going into six different establishments an hour, coming into contact with a ton of people, but they were in this position where they could either choose not to work because they don’t want to get themselves sick or endanger their customers if they are sick already, but then having to completely lose their income and not being entitled to things like employment insurance because they had been classified as independent contractors and weren’t paying into the employment insurance system. So they were faced with a real financial hit either way. And I think that was very frustrating and scary for a lot of couriers.
I think the pandemic also ushered in this new conceptualization of how support systems for our most vulnerable workers should look. And so the introduction of the Canadian emergency benefit did provide a layer of cushioning for gig workers that previously didn’t exist. And that was in part because of the advocacy of the Foodora couriers union, who in the early days of the pandemic said, ‘gig workers will not qualify for this emergency benefit as it’s been structured’.
And the federal government responded very quickly to address those concerns. So I think there’s been some wins even within this obviously very frustrating and scary time. But I think also resentment that throughout the pandemic there was no danger pay. There was, from courier’s perspective, a sort of lack of responsiveness from Foodora over some of their safety concerns, or a slow response to their safety concerns and culminating in the company actually leaving the country.
Jordan: And what does that mean going forward for the careers you followed, but also for gig workers in general? Foodora has left, is that ruling still a precedent if other gig workers wanted to try to unionize? How is it going to be used going forward?
Sara: Yeah, I think obviously while there’s disappointment when it comes to this individual case, I think that there’s still a sense of optimism, that couriers were able to get this decision at the labor board. I spoke to one courier, Ivan, who talked about the importance of this as a precedent for other gig workers who try and launch similar initiatives to change or improve their working conditions.
Clip: Ivan: Workers organizing, such as in the Foodora case, this is just the first step. Once we’ve won our own better rights and protections from the company, I want to do more things that have a broader impact. You know, the other apps, other couriers branching out to just other industries of people who need to organize. You know, this whole labor thing that we had to go through was all just a bureaucratic legal thing.
Because the way this industry is regulated has not been kept up. That’s not going to change really. When you know, we form a union and have a better contract with Foodora, that has to change.
Clip: Sara: The laws need to change.
Clip: Ivan: Exactly. So that’s a step that has to happen. So basically I’m saying that this has the potential to grow and become something I think really good for changing society as a whole.
Sara: I think that there is still a lot of energy around the idea of changing those bigger structural issues. And that’s certainly something that Ivan has expressed to us during the making of this podcast.
Jordan: You just kind of touched on the idea that a lot of us are waking up to just how important gig workers are in terms of getting us what we need. In the world that we live in now, are they going to use that leverage? Is there a movement afoot beyond the careers you followed? Cause it seems like, and again, I might be totally naive, but this would be the chance to really capitalize on that.
Sara: Yeah, I mean, I think just from an outsider’s perspective, we are really starting to see conversations more broadly, I think, about working conditions. And I think what the pandemic really highlighted was how intimately connected our whole society’s wellbeing is to working conditions. And it was sort of the starkest example you could imagine of that. Workers’ safety really became a public health issue.
And that was certainly true of Foodora couriers. It was true in the slaughter houses and meat packing facilities. It’s true in grocery stores. And so I think there’s been an interesting kind of conversational shift about that. I think the big question is how that translates longer-term and whether that momentum can be maintained. But I think the fact that there was this preexisting structure and organization built by Foodora couriers to highlight these issues even prior to the pandemic, will help maintain the momentum that was built. And it could be an opportunity to rethink the way that we structure our social support system and the way we structure, our employment protections, and our labor laws.
And I think that regardless of what has happened in this particular Foodora case, it certainly opened the door to other gig workers launching similar unionization efforts. We know that Uber Black drivers in Toronto have already kind of followed in the footsteps of Foodora couriers and launched their own union application at the labor board.
So I think that there’s definitely being tangible changes that have arisen as a result of the Foodora couriers campaign, and that have kind of crystallized and become even more visible because of the pandemic.
Jordan: Well I’ll be fascinated to see what comes next over the next few months and to listen to the rest of your podcast and episode two drops today. So thank you so much, Sara.
Sara: Thanks so much.
Jordan: Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the work and wealth reporter for The Toronto Star and the host of Hustled. You should check it out wherever you get your podcasts. That was The Big Story, for more from us, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You can write us an email. The address is email@example.com and we are, like Sara’s show in every single podcast player you could want. If you find us, give us a rating, give us a review and tell your friends. That’s how new people find out about the show. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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