Uber Is Expanding Its War on Labor to Canada With a Prop 22 Clone

In a new proposal announced Wednesday, the company is proposing provincial Canadian governments deny gig workers employee classification in exchange for a paltry benefits fund.
March 11, 2021, 2:00pm
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Justin Sullivan / Staff
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Uber has launched the next front of its war on labor laws and traditional employment, this time in Canada. 

On Wednesday, Uber published its pitch to provincial governments to implement a clone of Proposition 22, the self-written California ballot measure that preserved the misclassification scheme at the heart of Uber’s business model.

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In exchange for denying gig workers employee status, Uber is offering to create a portable benefits fund that would go towards partially covering benefits denied to independent contractors—namely health insurance and time off. However, analysis has shown that the promised benefits don’t stack up to those offered by traditional employment. 

After Prop 22 was passed in California, however, drivers saw their pay and working conditions deteriorate. An analysis of the ballot measure by California’s Healthcare Consumer Advocacy Coalition found that the funds allocated for benefits like health care were woefully inadequate. The health coverage is advertised as being 82 percent of the "average" premium of California's "most bare-bones coverage allowed by law,"  according to the researchers, but is in reality closer to only 50 to 60 percent. This hasn’t stopped Uber from trying to roll out Prop 22 clones across the United States, most recently in Massachusetts

In its attempt to expand its assault on labor laws via Prop 22-style legislation internationally, Uber is trotting out its familiar arguments. 

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Key to the case it's making is a survey it conducted of over 23,000 drivers and delivery people in Canada. Uber found 74 percent "named flexibility and independence as a top area of satisfaction." As gig economy researchers and law professors Veena Dubal and Sanjukta Paul have laid out, Uber is performing a sleight of hand trick here. Drivers want the protections of employee status, but "they are afraid of what an exploitative company like Uber would make them do if they were employees." The reality is, however, that gig workers' lives are "highly structured" by algorithmic overseers that deny them the agency that true independent contractors might enjoy, such as independently setting prices.

“Our view is our current employment system is outdated, unfair and somewhat inflexible and some workers get benefits and protections and others don’t,” Uber executive Andrew MacDonald told The Canadian Press. "We feel that COVID has exposed some of those fundamental flaws and think this is a good opportunity for change.”

MacDonald is right that this is a good opportunity—for Uber. The company is on the cusp of negotiating concessions from unions across the United States thanks to its overtures regarding benefits for drivers, even as court challenges across the rest of the world call into question the legality and viability of its business model. In Canada, courts have already ruled in favor of drivers suing to be classified as employees meaning its plea to provincial governments could go a long way towards thwarting yet another loss in the courts. 

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"The majority of drivers and delivery people do this part-time and will often balance it with other responsibilities,” MacDonald told Bloomberg in an interview on Wednesday. “So, we want to put forward a proposal and then work with governments on how we bring that to life to protect that flexibility and independence, but also add self-directed benefits for companies like Uber to contribute to."

McDonald here leaves out a key detail about how Uber really works: the vast majority of rides and trips are not done by part-time workers but by a smaller minority of full-time drivers and couriers

Uber’s international march may seem nigh-unstoppable, but over the past few years, there have been real strides globally towards frustrating Uber’s attempts to delay the inevitable

In February, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that drivers on the app are employees, not merely independent contractors. In March, Brussels banned it after Uber was found to be illegally bypassing earlier restrictions on its operation. Those are just some of the legal cases that have resolved or are pending across Europe, Asia, and more are sure to come because Uber’s business model (and that of the gig economy’s) ultimately requires making what might otherwise be illegal, legal, through some sort of labor law reform before the courts catch up.

Uber did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.