The so-called ‘gig economy’ is on the rise — here’s what that means for Alberta workers

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They’re the people who pick you up in an Uber or deliver groceries to your door — so-called gig workers, referred to as “independent contractors” by the companies for which they work — and across Canada, there’s an ongoing debate about the future of their industry.

Last month, a report from the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee recommended that those who work in the “gig economy” — for example, working for apps such as Uber and Skip The Dishes — should be guaranteed a minimum wage, along with some other protections.

No exact analog to that committee currently exists in Alberta. A spokesperson for Tyler Shandro, Alberta’s minister of labour and immigration, said the provincial government’s primary commitment is to support workers as the economy continues to recover.

“Alberta’s government continues to monitor the gig economy, as it is an evolving sector with unique needs,” said Joseph Dow in an email.

According to a study released by Statistics Canada in 2019, around eight per cent of all workers in Canada participated in gig work in 2016, up from 5.5 per cent in 2005. 

Brandon Mundy, a delivery driver with Instacart in Calgary, says working in the gig economy has helped him through some difficult times — but he’s hoping changes are introduced to mitigate the risks of working in a competitive and saturated market. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Efforts to update laws around how gig workers are paid and what benefits they are entitled to has been a contentious issue over the past few years. 

During the last federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said that the 1.7 million Canadians working in the gig economy were “left behind” during the pandemic.

An Alberta labour leader says despite the same issues existing for those participating in Alberta’s gig economy — low wages, insecurity and lack of benefits — no conversation is being had provincially about the supports available for these workers.

“I’m profoundly concerned about the shift towards gig work,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

“It’s bad for individual workers. But I would argue that it’s just as bad for the economy, because when people are faced with that kind of insecurity, they can’t participate in the economy in the same way as workers in other sectors.”

Brandon Mundy, a delivery driver with Instacart, says the time it takes to buy groceries from a store, and then deliver them to a home, isn’t always translating into reliable profits these days. He said an oversaturated market and mitigating concerns like vehicle repair can make things more challenging. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Brandon Mundy is a delivery worker with Instacart, a grocery delivery service.

He previously delivered with food delivery platform DoorDash, but said he stopped working for that service due to long periods of delays between orders.

“It can get incredibly competitive these days, because of how saturated the delivery driver industry is right now,” he said.

Even though Mundy said he tends to make more working with Instacart, he’s noticed smaller payouts recently. Plus, he’s been putting significant wear and tear on his vehicle.

“I would sure hope [Alberta] introduces support for gig workers,” Mundy said. “Especially with how popular it is now, especially through COVID.”

Efforts to unionize and departures of platforms

Those gig workers completing tasks for apps like Uber and Lyft are considered independent contractors by the companies. 

Therefore, the company isn’t obliged to pay minimum wage or other protections — but that is a “smoke screen,” said Jim Stanford, economist and director of the Vancouver-based Centre for Future Work.

“Courts and labour regulators in many countries around the world are recognizing that and saying, no, just because you assign the work over a smartphone doesn’t mean they’re not your effective employee,” Stanford said.

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, says he expects efforts to win rights and protections for gig workers will accelerate for a variety of reasons in the coming years, including due to a tightening of labour market conditions as the economy reopens from COVID-19. (Submitted by Jim Stanford)

Uber Canada previously referred CBC News to a proposal that would provide a benefit fund to workers, adding that the company attempts to prioritize “what drivers and delivery people want: flexibility plus benefits.”

Efforts by workers to secure more benefits have also led to certain app-based platforms reconsidering their availability within Canada.

In 2020, food delivery service Foodora announced it would leave Canada in the wake of workers attempting to unionize. 

Stanford said such moves suggested that business models of gig platforms depended on the “exploitation of gig workers.”

“That should really be a warning sign for us that this is not a business model that we should encourage in Canada. We have to make sure that they’re subject to the same rules and responsibilities as any other employer,” he said. 

“Otherwise, this cancer, which is spreading through the labour market, will continue to undermine wages and working conditions in all kinds of industries.”

Ontario’s recent proposal did not include everything the union-backed group Gig Workers United called for, including for gig workers to receive full employee protections.

In early December, the European Union announced draft legislation that would provide employee rights to gig economy workers, a move that would affect millions of workers.



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