Ivan Ostos, a 23-year-old Foodora bike courier who was injured on the job in Toronto, is encouraging others to demand better protection for themselves, by being part of a union.
Couriers in Ontario, including Oster, who deliver for the on-demand app Foodora, today announced their intention to join the union representing more than 50,000 Canada Post workers. Hitching a ride with an organized labour movement would be a first in this country for a large group of gig economy delivery workers employed by a multinational company.
When Ostos started doing deliveries for Foodora, he was 20 and had just quit school. At first, he didn’t mind the lack of paid sick or vacation days. “I’m one tough fucker,” he told VICE. “I didn’t think anything would happen to me even though this city demonizes bikers.”
Something did happen, while he was rushing to deliver food in September of last year. He says another cyclist crashed into him, knocking him to the ground, breaking his arm. “My first thought was ‘Is the order OK?’”
He discovered that the injury, which required hospitalization and taking several months off work, was his problem. After weeks of emails, messages and calls to the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, he was given what he calls the “bare minimum to live on,” which came to $210 a week. No monetary compensation from Foodora. He says it wasn’t enough to cover his cost of living so he returned to work earlier than he would have liked because he had bills to pay.
Right now, he and his colleagues pay out of pocket to see an eye doctor or a dentist. They pay to maintain their bikes, or vehicles, which they use for deliveries. And although the Foodora website says couriers can make up to $25 an hour and that tips go straight to the delivery workers, Ostos and his colleagues say there are many hours they’ve worked for free because there were no deliveries coming in. Their pay is “highly inconsistent,” which makes it tough to budget. They say they work like maniacs and are broke all the time.
In a statement to VICE, Foodora Canada’s managing director David Albert wrote: “At Foodora, we care about the well-being of our riders, which is why we offer an inclusive WSIB (or provincial equivalent) package and have an open-door policy at our office in Toronto, where our team and fleet supervisor are always there to assist the contractors where we can.” He states that “rider satisfaction is a top priority and we’re proud that the average earnings across the country in March were a competitive rate of $21/hour.”
Foodora operates in seven Canadian cities, including two in Ontario—Toronto and it launched in Ottawa last week. The offer to be part of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) extends to people who do deliveries by bicycle or using a vehicle. The union says that for strategic reasons, it isn’t disclosing how many people are eligible. It also says it would be open to considering couriers who work for rival delivery companies.
Labour experts say unionizing won’t be easy. An important hurdle is that the couriers—who are currently classified as independent contractors—have to change their designation to “employee.” A key part of that classification is hinges on who has more power, the employer or the worker. CUPW will argue that Foodora calls most of the shots. They plan to make their case to the Ontario Labour Relations Board but employment lawyer Lisa Stam says they have their work cut out for them, based on the fact that Premier Doug Ford has rolled back provisions that would help gig workers, which the previous Liberal government put in place.
“Much of this will need to come from the political will to better protect gig workers, which is not the Ontario political environment we're currently in,” she told VICE. Another difficulty is that Foodora’s parent company, Delivery Hero, is based in Germany and provincial staff may decide that’s beyond their jurisdiction.
According to Stam, whose firm SpringLaw specializes in labour issues, their best bet is to band together on the path to unionization. “The odds of success? Likely slim for one individual at a time, but we are in a moment where society is questioning whether the current version of the gig economy is good for workers and good for society as a whole.”
This isn’t Foodora’s first brush with organized labour. The company pulled out of Australia last year after a big, public battle with unionized workers who claimed they were owed more than $5 million US in unpaid wages. Couriers in Toronto say those were very different circumstances, but they are aware of the uphill battle they face.
Economist Linda Nazareth says timing, and the economic environment is important when it comes to bargaining with multinational companies. Canada’s unemployment rate is sitting at a 43-year low. In March, the youth unemployment rate—for people between the ages of 15 and 25—ticked lower to 10.7 percent (down from 10.8 percent in the previous month).
“The timing is right from that perspective, but with companies like these, the danger is that if you push wages up too high, you will accelerate how quickly some companies move to replace staff with automation.” She wrote a book about employment trends and cites McDonald’s as an example where a push to raise wages prompted the company to install automated ordering machines, rather than hire more people. Nazareth says when pushed, large firms find other ways to trim costs.
As far as Ostos and CUPW National Representative Aaron Spires are concerned, although it may not be official, the movement has begun, and several Foodora workers are already part of a union, because they’re banding together. They’ll jump through the hoops they need to, but they say this kind of protection for gig workers—especially ones who do potentially dangerous work on urban streets—is long overdue.
“We’re tired of being treated as disposable. Toronto is a dangerous place for cyclists. I’m under a lot of pressure to make enough to pay my rent, maintain my bicycle, stay healthy. We’re looking for something as simple as safety and respect at work,” says Ostos.
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