Commentary,  Gig Economy

Three Paths to Strengthening Labour Standards for Gig Workers

Centre for Future Work Director Jim Stanford was recently interviewed by Shaye Ganam on his morning news show on the 770CHQR and 630CHED radio stations in Alberta about the accelerating trend toward gig employment in Canada. The interview covered the origins of the gig business model, the risks faced by gig workers, and new developments in other countries aimed at closing some of the regulatory gaps that have allowed platforms like Uber to evade traditional labour standards (like minimum wages, workers compensation, pensions, and holidays). The full interview is posted below, covering the first 13 minutes of the program.

In the interview Jim outlined three paths to improving labour conditions for gig workers:

    1. Testing and applying existing laws through challenges to labour boards and courts. It is likely that gig workers in Canada are already covered by many existing labour standards (including those which apply to so-called ‘dependent contractors’ in several provinces). But it needs well-designed and well-resourced enforcement actions to confirm that those laws apply. Some of those have already succeeded (such as the Ontario labour board decision that gig workers have the right to unionize); others are in process (such as an Ontario court case over whether Uber drivers are entitled to severance payments if discharged); others should be initiated by unions and other advocates as soon as possible (such as confirming that gig workers should be paid minimum wage). In the federal jurisdiction there is opportunity to show that gig workers should receive EI and CPP benefits.

    2. Union organizing and collective bargaining. Most gig workers likely already have the right to form unions (and further labour board cases will likely confirm that). Workers and unions can advance the fight for fair treatment by forming unions among gig workers, and starting the process of negotiating improved terms and conditions (including better revenue sharing; control over data; fair reimbursement of expenses; more transparent dispatch algorithms; and more). Gig workers in other countries (most recently in Spain) have negotiated collective agreements that prove this can be done. This is a long, hard slog – but there’s nothing stopping Canadian gig workers from starting it now.

    3. New legislative reform. In some cases it may be necessary, and in more cases helpful, for governments to reform or clarify existing labour laws and regulations to make it clear that gig workers must be covered by the same protections as other workers. This could involve establishment of simple tests to determine whether someone is a genuinely independent small business operator (including by whether they get to set their own prices, market their services independently, keep profit, and invest in capital) or whether they are a worker in disguise. Again, the federal jurisdiction may be a potent avenue for this area of work, since the federal Liberal government pledged in the last election to ensure federal labour policies (including both employment standards in federally regulated industries, and federal social programs like EI and CPP) apply to the gig workforce.
    It seems clear that ongoing legal challenges, organizing drives, and legislative reform will gradually close the loopholes that have so far allowed gig platforms to evade traditional labour standards – and many jurisdictions around the world are moving in this direction. However, a significant threat to all three of these avenues for change would be custom-made laws aimed at specifically excluding gig platforms from normal labour laws (modeled on California’s Proposition 22). The gig companies (and business-friendly governments) describe these laws as efforts to provide gig workers with at least some protections. But the reality, as previous Centre for Future Work research has shown, is they are aimed at forestalling the establishment of genuine rights for gig workers.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.