Debate continues on the pros and cons of the gig economy. In this ‘sharing economy’ based on freelance, temporary or contingent on-demand project or piece-work arrangements, workers contract their labour through internet-based platforms such as Uber, Hyr, Upwork. According to staffing company Randstad Canada, non-traditional workers (freelancers, contingent workers, independent contractors and consultants) now make up 20-30% of the Canadian workforce with 85% of employers intending to adopt a substantially more “agile” workforce.
While some see the gig economy as offering new and entrepreneurial opportunities, for others it is precarious employment with a dark side that can herald a race to the bottom with a digital labour force competing for the same jobs and vulnerabilities that challenge gig workers’ right to health.
A recent Australian study, Workplace Safety Futures (2018), exploring six megatrends looked at the challenges, risks and opportunities emerging technologies and digital platforms pose for occupational safety and workers’ compensation.
The report questions whether current laws and regulations adequately protect gig workers, if current definitions of “workers” and “independent contractors” are fit for the gig economy. A growing body of literature in the U.S. and Europe also is addressing the need to ensure workers’ compensation and social protections for on-demand workers.
Differing standards of coverage “fundamentally unfair”
Closer to home, a recent CBC Marketplace program raised the issue of (mis)classification of gig workers as independent contractors. The investigation found that for delivery couriers making food deliveries – a dangerous occupation on congested roads – getting workers’ compensation for on-the-job injury depended on which province you worked in and which app you worked for. In Ontario, of the 3 major food delivery app companies featured (Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes, Foodora) only Foodora was registered with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). Following the program and reported inconsistencies, including a difference in how the WSIB treats couriers on bike or foot and those in cars, the WSIB announced the launch of a review into UberEats’ classification and that of the courier industry as a whole. Discussing the differing standards, interviewee Aidan Macdonald of Injured Workers’ Community Legal Clinic emphasized the need across the country and across the Board for full, universal coverage for all workers, including courier workers. Without this, injured gig workers face being forced to rely on taxpayer-funded social assistance – or private charity.
Offloading the responsibility and risk onto workers
The gig economy offers obvious benefits for employers: lower overhead costs; the ability to shift much of the risk and responsibility onto the individual worker. In her article “Disability and the Job Churn” Katie Raso points to another advantage for employers: as a system that survives on just-in-time delivery of labour’s services, it allows use of the Bona Fide Occupational Requirement ‘loophole’ in arguing inability to accommodate without undue hardship, “especially not a disabled worker’s need for an adapted schedule or access to assistive devices, for example …”
Legal challenges continue
Ontario’s recent Changing Workplace Review and Bill 148, Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017, aimed to address new and increasingly precarious labour market. In its analysis of both (Demanding A Fair Share), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found the Review failed to adequately investigate the needs of gig economy workers. Further, that while the resulting legislation made some positive changes, many of the labour and employment protections introduced remained out of reach for online on-demand service economy workers, “without getting at the root of the precariousness.” Recommendations submitted in the Workers Action Centre & Parkdale Community Legal Services response, Building Decent Jobs from the Ground Up, similarly addressed the need for an expanded definition of employee to include dependent contractor, and for a legal presumption of employee status. While Bill 148 did make it illegal to misclassify an employee as an independent contractor (a category of worker with far fewer protections and benefits), the new government’s Bill 47, Making Ontario Open for Business Act, 2018 removed the provision that put the onus on employers to prove that a worker was a true independent contractor when a dispute over classification arises. Just who constitutes an employee, dependent contractor or independent contractor and how each should be treated under the law, remains an issue still evolving through legal challenges, including in Ontario the Heller v. Uber Technologies Inc. class action.
- Bajwa, U. et al. 2018 Dec. “The Health of Workers in the Global Gig Economy.” Globalization and Health 14:124
- Ghebreslassie, Makda, Caitlin Taylor & Anu Singh. 2018 Nov. 16. “Ontario Workplace Safety Board Reviewing Uber Eats Following Marketplace Investigation.” CBC News
- Semuels, Alana. 2018 Aug. 31. “The Online Gig Economy’s ‘Race to the Bottom’.” The Atlantic
- Raso, Katie. 2018 July/Aug. “Disability and the Job Churn.” The Monitor 25(2): 26-27
- Horton, J. Safe Work Australia. 2018. Workplace Safety Futures. Canberra: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
- Behrendt, Christina & Quynh Anh Nguyen. 2018. Innovative approaches for ensuring universal social protection for the future of work. Geneva: International Labour Organization
- Faraday, Fay. 2017 Jul. Demanding A Fair Share: Protecting Workers’ Rights in The On-Demand Service Economy. Toronto: Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis-Ontario
- National Employment Law Project. 2016 Jun. On-Demand Workers Should Be Covered By Workers’ Compensation. New York: NELP.
- Anderson, Laura & Seeong-gee Um. 2015 Sep. Behind the Bargains: How the Sharing Economy Impacts Health. Toronto: Wellesley Institute.