Home Workplace News Punched on the job: When gig workers are denied basic safety support

Punched on the job: When gig workers are denied basic safety support

by Local Journalism Initiative
By Zak Vescera | The Tyee

Aman Sood was supposed to drive the man in the yellow construction vest to McCallum Road in Abbotsford for $4.42. 

On the way the two got into  an argument about which exit to take from the highway. It escalated,  and Sood decided to pull over and cancel the trip. Sood’s dashcam  captures the passenger leaning forward from the backseat. He cocks his  fist, pauses for a moment, yells and punches Sood in the side of the  head. 

Days later, Abbotsford police caught the  suspect. William Tickle, 38, now faces charges of assault causing bodily  harm and uttering threats. 

But that didn’t change things for Sood. He  ended the trip beaten and bruised. He told The Tyee he could not feel  his left shoulder, meaning he had been unable to drive and had lost his  main source of income. 

If he had almost any other  boss, that wouldn’t be a problem. Sood could apply to the province’s  workers’ compensation board for money and medical help.  

But Sood works for Uber, a company that considers all its workers to be independent contractors and not employees. 

On Friday, he got the official news. His  request for compensation had been rejected. A few weeks later, Sood  bought a plane ticket home to India. He said he no longer had the money  to stay in Canada. 

“They don’t care,” Sood said in an interview. “It is very clear that they are not going to give anything.” 

The assault on Sood has added fuel to a  growing policy battle over what British Columbia should do about  companies like Uber, whose workers operate without basic labour  protections most take for granted.  

Years of government consultations with  drivers for such platform-based apps have found persistent problems  around pay transparency, scheduling and worker safety. 

The companies, backed by certain business  groups, have argued those problems can be fixed without changing how  they classify their workers. 

But the BC Federation of Labour has called  on the province to pass laws that would require such companies to  designate their workers as employees, guaranteeing them a minimum wage,  paid sick leave, severance pay and other protections afforded to most  workers. 

“We should be leading on this,” said  federation president Sussanne Skidmore in an interview. “We should be  leading the country in making sure these folks who are currently  misclassified in the system are classified properly, that they are  deemed employees.” 

Employers have argued such regulation would  make their platforms uncompetitive and remove the flexibility that  draws many workers. In consultations with government, they’ve argued  that the kind of regulation Skidmore wants would result in a mass exodus  from their platforms. 

In the meantime, many drivers like Sood say  they are struggling to make ends meet — and frustrated with the slow  pace of change. 

“I feel like more and more, I’m overworked and underpaid,” Uber driver Arvin Singh said in a February interview. 

Starting on the job

Before Sood drove for Uber, he  was an instructor for yoga teachers. Sood has travelled across the  world to teach the craft, he said, and ran a successful studio in B.C.  Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and his business failed. He began  driving with Uber to make ends meet, he said.

But recently, he had become frustrated with  the app. He suspected Uber was taking a bigger slice of his earnings  than it had before and that tips left by customers weren’t reaching his  wallet. 

Sood is now part of a larger group of  drivers in B.C. who have spoken out about the lack of basic labour  protections and called on government to intervene. 

“They’ve flooded the market with so many  drivers that it feels unsustainable, in a sense. They have more drivers  than jobs. And I feel like that’s disingenuous to the workers,” said  Singh, who has driven for Uber for more than three years. 

Singh says there’s little to no  transparency on how Uber divides the proceeds of each trip. And while he  appreciates the flexibility of the work, he says drivers can also be  kicked off the app without any kind of severance pay or compensation if  they get a bad review from a customer. 

“Nine out of 10 times, people are drunk at  night. They’re upset you don’t stop at McDonald’s because they’re drunk.  They file a complaint, and you’re off the app,” Singh said. 

Sometimes, the app even takes wages back.  On March 31, the company said a widespread glitch caused some Uber Eats  workers to be paid double for certain deliveries. It responded by clawing back  that money from people across the platform. An Uber spokesperson would  not say how many drivers were affected or how much money was taken back.  

And when drivers are injured on the job,  they can’t always turn to the worker’s compensation system for help.  Many drivers like Sood have applied to WorkSafeBC for replacement income  and medical help only to be rejected. 

A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC told The Tyee  that it reviews such contracts on a “case-by-case basis” and that it is  “closely following federal, provincial and international initiatives  regarding the gig economy.” 

None of those problems are new. In its 2017  platform, the BC NDP acknowledged the rise of “gig work” was  transforming the province’s job market. In 2020, it promised to start  work on a strategy to address it. It tasked MLA Adam Walker with  wide-reaching consultations in the sector, including meetings with  dozens of gig workers across the province. Walker has since been  replaced in that role by Janet Routledge, the new parliamentary  secretary for labour. 

The province’s report, released last month, highlighted issues of low pay, non-existent benefits and precarity in the sector. 

It also highlighted a stark divide on what  to do about it. On one hand, labour advocates like the federation argue  many drivers for such companies meet the definition of employees, not  independent contractors. In B.C., that distinction means workers are  guaranteed a minimum wage, paid sick leave and severance pay and have  the right to unionize.

According to the government’s report,  companies told the province that classifying workers as employees would  make the work less flexible. They also argued workers don’t meet the  definition of employee because some delivery and ride-share workers use  multiple apps at the same time to maximize profits. 

Uber and the United Food and Commercial  Workers advocated for more protections in a submission to the B.C.  government last year, including a minimum salary equal to 120 per cent  of the minimum wage,” benefits and access to health and safety  protections for on-the-job injuries. They argued Uber drivers should be  able to unionize and bargain collectively.

UFCW western representative Pablo Godoy  said last year that no existing classification under the labour code  meets app workers’ needs.

The national union announced it had signed  an agreement in January 2022 to provide Uber drivers and delivery people  with “strong representation.” 

UFCW Local 1518 went to the BC Labour  Relations Board in 2019 to argue Lyft and Uber drivers should be  considered employees under B.C.’s Labour Relations Code.

But the board dismissed the union’s application and decided against employee status for drivers.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which is seeking to represent Uber drivers in Toronto, has filed an unfair labour practices’ complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

It argued the Uber-UFCW national agreement undercut CUPW’s own efforts to organize drivers.

Jennifer Scott is a long-time courier and  president of Gig Workers United in Toronto, which is affiliated with the  Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ campaign. 

“What Uber is doing now is just like  another one of the tools from their international playbook. They’ve done  this before,” Scott said. 

But for all the furor over whether those  drivers are employees or not, B.C.’s minister of labour says it’s not up  to him to decide. 

Labour Minister Harry Bains, who met with  Sood after the attack, has said the matter of whether drivers are  employees is up to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, not him. 

In an interview last month, Bains said app  workers can also appeal to the Employment Standards Branch if they feel  they are being wrongly denied legal protections.

“I don’t make that decision as minister,”  Bains said. “I have encouraged those drivers to file complaints with the  Employment Standards Branch. It’s that branch that will make that  determination — not those employees, not the company or the minister.”

But Skidmore says the government could pass  legislation to make it explicitly clear it considers those workers  employees.  “That’s a decision the government can make. It’s a decision  the cabinet can make,” she said. 

The Employment Standards Branch said it has  never issued a determination about employee classification for any  worker for DoorDash, Uber, SkipTheDishes or Lyft, several of the largest  companies operating in the sector.

Skidmore pointed out that many drivers and delivery workers are new Canadians or immigrants. 

“It’s an erosion of the way we treat workers in this province, and we shouldn’t be doing that here,” she said. 

Some labour experts argue that failing to  clamp down on those firms could embolden other companies to look for  loopholes in employment law.  

“If they investigated these employers, they  would find that most of their employees who are app-based are employees  as defined by the act,” said David Fairey in a February interview with  The Tyee. Fairey is a labour economist and co-chair of the BC Employment  Standards Coalition. He said excluding such workers from the definition  of an employee would create loopholes employers in other sectors could  exploit in the future to lower costs.

“It creates another category of worker  which is not going to be entitled to all the rights and benefits of the  Employment Standards Act. There are enough exclusions from the act as it  is already,” he said. 

Drivers are divided on the matter. As the  government report suggested, many like the option to work their own  hours. But others say incidents like the attack on Sood show why they  need stronger labour protections.

Kuljeet Singh, who has been driving for  Uber for more than four years, says he used to be able to make a decent  living driving on the app. But now, he said, the rising cost of living  and falling wages are making it harder. 

“I work 60 to 70 hours. It’s OK if I get  good money. But I don’t have benefits. I pay my own dental. I pay for my  own medicine. What am I getting from them?” Singh said. 

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