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Inside the battle for Foodora: ‘This is about the whole gig economy’

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A year to the day since they launched an ambitious campaign to become the first app-based workforce in the country to join a union, Foodora couriers are standing — two metres apart — outside the food delivery giant’s headquarters.

It’s May Day, and couriers are mad. This is not the anniversary they’d hoped for.

The second floor of the sleek brick building on Richmond Street will soon be empty.

Foodora has initiated insolvency proceedings after recently announcing a hasty exit from the Canadian market.

Couriers are protesting these decisions, which will put 3,000 of them out of work amid a pandemic.

They are protesting what they see as an attempt to circumvent the union drive, one that the province’s labour board recently ruled could proceed over Foodora’s objections.

And they’re protesting a broader problem: a system that often excludes gig workers from basic protection, including the right to join a union.

“All the issues that have always existed are out in the open now,” says Ivan Ostos, one of the couriers brandishing Lysol wipes and a microphone at the socially distanced May Day rally.

“They’ve never been more glaringly obvious. We’re simply not respected.”

Ivan Ostos was among Foodora couriers trying to help organize a union for workers in Toronto. "This is about the whole gig economy," he says. "This is about the whole Canadian economy."

Over the past year, Foodora has rebuffed complaints about a business model based on classifying its fleet of cyclists and drivers as independent contractors.

Foodora said the model has benefits: most notably, it provides freedom and flexibility to workers who can be their own boss.

It also creates a hurdle to unionizing: independent contractors do not have that right under Ontario law.

The company sank significant resources into fighting Foodora couriers’ attempt to challenge their job classification, the first step toward joining the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

In February, Foodora lost. Now it’s May Day, and the company will soon be gone, citing an inability to grow in a competitive market. It says the legal dispute with CUPW has nothing to do with the decision.

For Ostos, the timing stings.

“There’s all this stress from this pandemic that’s going on,” he says. “It probably couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

But the battle is not over, he says, because it was never just about Foodora.

“This is about the whole gig economy,” he says. “This is about the whole Canadian economy.”

Around 1.7 million Canadians work in the gig economy, according to a recent Statistics Canada study, based on the latest available data from 2016.

It’s a small proportion of the workforce, around eight per cent, but one that’s steadily grown over the past decade. Many see it as part of an overall trend, one where more and more workers are in short-term, casual, or otherwise unstable jobs.

Foodora couriers’ campaign to join the Canadian Union of Postal Workers went public in May last year.

In reality, the campaign started long before that. It originated not in a boardroom, but in Toronto’s green spaces: with the city itself serving as food couriers’ workplace, parks are the equivalent of the office water cooler.

“Any relationship between co-workers that exists, exists because of the initiative of the couriers to meet each other,” says courier Chris Williams, who was first introduced to the idea of unionizing at a courier gathering in Trinity-Bellwoods.

Like most app companies, Foodora has always described itself as a digital platform — not an employer. Couriers receive little in the way of formal training. They can buy Foodora-branded bags and jackets, but as self-employed contractors, they are not required to wear them. They pick up work through an app, not a manager.

For all those reasons, Foodora argues its couriers do not fit the description of an employee with the right to join a union.

Putting aside this formidable legal obstacle, CUPW organizer Liisa Schofield says the first challenge to unionizing Foodora couriers was another defining feature of the job: isolation.

In a job mediated almost entirely by an app, most Foodora couriers didn’t even know who their colleagues were — let alone whether they had the same concerns about working conditions.

“We really had to completely tear apart any traditional modes of organizing,” she says. “It was really about street outreach.”

Schofield helped couriers develop ways to start building relationships with co-workers. The templates ranged from a 30-second exchange at a stoplight to a five-minute chat outside a restaurant to a half-hour debrief over coffee.

The ultimate test was whether, in even the briefest version of the conversation, a fellow courier would provide their name, their number, and say a keyword: union.

Even Schofield was surprised at the uptake.

“As a campaign that was really largely based on cold calls … I have never had a more positive experience of approaching workers,” she says. “There was just like an atmosphere in the air of people wanting change and needing to see it in their lives.”

Couriers’ pay had been stagnant for years at $4.50 a delivery plus $1 per kilometre from restaurant to drop-off. That structure also meant much of the work — in particular, the travel back from a delivery to a pickup — was unpaid.

For Williams, isolation on the job wasn’t simply a hurdle to unionizing. It was also a reason unionizing felt necessary.

“Loneliness just kind of impoverishes your life, generally speaking, but it also means that you’re probably unsupported,” he says. “If you get in an accident, it’s quite a safety hazard because no one’s going to come to you at the hospital.”

And to Williams, all those problems had a root cause: couriers’ status as independent contractors.

“These trends don’t have our best interest at heart. They allow for the company to have a really flexible workforce that kind of just accepts whatever wages they set,” he says. “And I think, intuitively, a lot of us recognize that’s not good enough.”

Foodora has always maintained its independent contractor model is an opportunity for workers.

When it acquired Toronto-based food delivery startup Hurrier in 2015, Foodora said it “absorbed an existing business that worked alongside independent contractors who executed food deliveries on behalf of the company.”

“This model was working well for both sides,” the company said in a statement. “So we maintained it.”

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Hurrier’s founder Adam Hasham says his original aim back in 2013 was to use technology to make courier work fairer. An algorithm could dispatch orders quickly and simply, based on which courier was closest to the pickup point. Human discretion at traditional courier companies left room for discrimination.

“I had heard a lot of horror stories about how some couriers were being treated,” he says.

Hasham says he used the independent contractor model because at the time he couldn’t afford to pay couriers a regular salary. Back then, he says around 80 per cent of his startup’s revenue went to couriers’ wages.

While he saw technology as a force for good, he never saw it as a panacea.

“I think unionizing, historically, really helped workers,” says Hasham. “(Unions) are the ones that kind of kicked off a five-day work week, with 9-to-5 hours, vacations and all these basic employee rights that are super important.”

Foodora, which is owned by Berlin-based multinational company Delivery Hero, bought Hasham’s startup in 2015; the software he built to dispatch orders still powers the company’s app.

As couriers prepared to hold a union vote in August 2019, the company encouraged them to vote No so that it could “continue to work directly with riders” without “third-party interference.”

A tiny sign inside a bicycle wheel urges Foodora couriers to vote "Yes" in their unionization bid. Couriers had gathered for a rally on University Avenue in January as closing arguments over the issue of whether or not Foodora couriers are independent contractors with no right to unionize took place.

The results of the vote were sealed until the parties could resolve the key legal issue, one that spoke to the essence of the gig economy. Were Foodora’s couriers truly independent contractors, acting as their own bosses? Or were their working conditions largely beyond their control — dictated by an app on their smartphone?

The hearings took place at the Ontario Labour Relations Board in a sage green room plagued by constant internet failure. Despite the somewhat anachronistic setting, the proceedings drew an unusually large and often youthful crowd. It was the first real window into an app company’s operations in Canada.

Lawyers for Foodora argued strenuously that couriers fit the legal description of a contractor, acting essentially as self-employed entrepreneurs.

While Foodora may occasionally intervene in couriers’ work for the sake of quality control, lawyers argued drivers and cyclists were largely in control of their day-to-day working conditions. They owned their own equipment and exercised discretion over when and where they worked.

But Foodora’s position did not convince the labour board.

In a decision issued in February this year, chair Matthew Wilson ruled Foodora’s couriers did not look much like entrepreneurs at all. Evidence of couriers “dual-apping” — working for multiple food delivery apps at one time — was not entrepreneurialism, he ruled. It was simply evidence of hard work.

Ultimately, Wilson ruled that couriers, in fact, looked more like dependent contractors — a middle ground between traditional employees and independent contractors, and a category of worker that has the right to unionize.

It was the first ruling of its kind on the gig economy in Canada.

Foodora couriers rally on University Avenue in January during closing arguments for their precedent-setting case in their quest to unionize.

The labour board’s ruling didn’t mean couriers had officially unionized, but it meant they had the legal right to. That opened the door to months more legal wrangling between CUPW and Foodora to unseal the union ballots cast months earlier.

What made the ruling so significant was not just that it was the first about an app-based workforce, but that it was so expansive in its reasoning.

“I think that the board, thankfully, kind of resisted the temptation to just be as kind of minimalist as possible,” says Ryan White, the lawyer representing CUPW.

“They certainly made a few comments and I think really provide us with a very good kind of jumping-off point for future platform-based applications and future gig economy applications.”

In response to the decision, Foodora said it was “assessing how it would move forward,” adding for now, it was “business as usual.”

Within weeks, the advent of a global pandemic made business as usual impossible. Couriers quickly found themselves on the front lines of the crisis delivering meals — and even medication.

For some, it only sharpened the argument for joining a union.

“We never got any kind of pay raise or danger pay or anything like that. During the pandemic, we were still making the same s—ty rates that we were before,” says courier Alexander Kurth. “It just shows how essential unions are in order to protect what all of us deserve.”

Before the negotiations between CUPW and Foodora could begin in earnest, Foodora announced its exit from Canada.

It came in the form of a late April email to couriers, with the subject line “Important Update.”

In the email, Foodora said it was “not able to grow our business into a leading position in the highly competitive and saturated Canadian environment.” Couriers, the email said, would receive a notice terminating their contract later that day.

Despite the undeniable economic uncertainty created by the pandemic, some couriers questioned whether Foodora was truly a loser amid the tumult.

A Foodora courier wears a face mask as a precautionary measure amidst the coronavirus pandemic during a delivery run near Front and Yonge Streets in March.

The day after Foodora announced its departure, its parent company released its first-quarter results. Globally, orders and revenues had doubled; the pandemic, its report noted, had strengthened demand.

But based on Foodora’s next move — initiating insolvency proceedings in Canada — the success had not translated locally. According to its creditors list, the company is $4.7 million in debt.

Couriers are not listed as creditors. They are expected to receive their wages in full before the company leaves.

That fact has not lessened couriers’ indignation.

“I’m angry at this company for abandoning thousands of workers when they’re needed the most,” says Kurth. “We were always disposable to them. And it’s infuriating.”

The May Day rally closes with a round of “Solidarity Forever,” a labour anthem inspired by an early-20th-century coal miners strike in West Virginia. It’s an era that seems a world away from a group of young people whose boss is an app, an app created by software engineers inspired by Silicon Valley.

But for couriers, the song concludes with a fitting line — one about creating a “new world from the ashes of the old.”

That, says Schofield, was the whole point of a campaign aimed at the heart of the gig economy.

“It can’t continue the level of exploitation that it’s been dependent on,” she says. “Its days are numbered.”

Hustled, a podcast series investigating the gig economy, launches May 19. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts.

Listen to episode one of Hustled: David vs. Goliath



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Employee retention in the age of gig economy: Organisations need to go the extra mile to make employees feel valued

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With talent pools today becoming more diverse in their age composition and with Gen Z entering the workforce, many prefer to turn gig workers.

By Vipul Singh

The current pace of economic transformation, due to the adoption of newer technologies, has reshaped how people interact with organisations. This, in turn, has relaxed our structured work opportunities, contributing to the furthering of the ‘gig economy’.

According to a research by Intuit, the gig economy constitutes about 34% of the current workforce. The forecast is an increase of up to 43% by the end of 2020. The size of the gig economy is projected to grow by a 17% CAGR and generate a gross volume of $455 billion by 2023.

With talent pools today becoming more diverse in their age composition and with Gen Z entering the workforce, many prefer to turn gig workers. Considering these trends, it is important for an organisation to keep the workforce engaged with multiple programmes and initiatives.

Growth opportunities: A LinkedIn survey of 32 million profiles suggested that there is 62% chance of an employee staying after moving internally, as compared to 45% chance when someone stays in the same role. Another survey suggested that internal opportunities increase the chances of the employee continuing for another 12 months by 48%.

These trends suggest that providing career paths internally boosts employee engagement, which translates into retention.

Employee training and development: Organisations offering training and development to the employees have a 20% lower turnover rate than those that don’t. A designed development programme that focuses on technical and individual development can result in strategic motivation.

Flexibility and work-life balance: Incorporating technology in daily processes gives employees more autonomy over their work and provides the organisation with access to global talent. This results in greater work satisfaction and decreased chances of employee turnover to the gig economy.

Technology for productivity: When partnered in the right way with employees, technology can improve the overall efficiency, while helping create more bandwidth for them to do more meaningful work. By doing work that adds value, employees can test their capabilities, come out of their comfort zone and accelerate their growth. Encouraging employees to leverage such opportunities will build trust and accountability amongst the workforce.

Competitive benefits: The prime advantage of having a traditional job on a permanent basis is the benefits that come along with it.

Family health cover with an option to add parents/parents-in-law, child care, infant care, higher education assistance, transport during maternity are some of the benefits organisations must consider. A comprehensive benefits package will be hard to give up for many.

Gig economy will continue to expand due to the ever-growing opportunities and the rise of platforms that facilitate personalised remote working. Hence, organisations need to go the extra mile to communicate, engage and make employees feel valued to retain them.

The author is vice-president & head of HR & Communications, ADP Pvt Ltd

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Gig workers face shifting roles, competition in pandemic – Fox11online.com

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6 Gig Economy Jobs Perfect for Military Spouses

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The gig economy is an area where military spouses can thrive. For all of the reasons that the rest of the world shy away from Independent Contractor jobs, military spouses rush towards them. Flexible hours? Yes, please. Work from anywhere? Sounds great. No benefits? Don’t really need those.

For the past few years, the military spouse employment issue has been offset just a bit by the gig economy. Companies like Instant Teams and Wise Advise + Assist have made it their mission to connect military spouses with jobs in the gig economy. And it’s working.

While a gig economy job may not be the long term career solution you ultimately want, it’s great if you’re looking to make some cash while staying flexible.

Interested in a gig economy job? Here are six of them that military spouses should consider.

Millie Scout

If you’re a military spouse with some experience moving and a desire to help other spouses iron out the details of their next move, you may enjoy becoming a Millie Scout. With an average pay of $50 to $75 per job you can put your social media and tech skills to work performing tasks like reviewing houses and neighborhoods, checking in on rental properties and walking through properties for your fellow military spouse. This gig economy job can move with you and you’ll be connected with over 130 other Scouts to help you grow your professional network.

Virtual Assistant

Many military spouses have discovered the potential for jobs as a virtual assistant (VA). What does a virtual assistant do? Almost anything, but typically the time-consuming and sometimes tedious tasks that business owners and other people are too busy to do well. These tasks range from data entry to answering emails to transcription.

If you’re interested in becoming a virtual assistant, there’s a free online class designed by military spouse Esther Inman. Inman’s website also has tips to land VA jobs, and she adds resources via social media almost every day.

Online English Teacher

The option of teaching English online has made its way through all of the military spouse groups, but it is still a good option. From VIPKid to Cambly to Boxfish, there are many options. If you don’t have a degree or experience, Cambly is the one for you. They pay $0.17 a minute and you can work as much as you want. (Hourly that comes out to about $10.)

VIPKid, where you can teach one-on-one or group lessons, pays from $14 to $22 an hour, based on your availability and experience within the company. Of course, you’re teaching children in another time zone, so this may not work for everyone.

Boxfish is another option for teaching English to Chinese students. You can teach on-demand or scheduled classes with up to four students and each $10 per 25-minute session. Both VIPKid and Boxfish require a degree and some teaching experience.

Freelance Writer

There are varying degrees of freelance writers, some who freelance full time and some who write just a few pieces a month. Either way, if you’re interested in writing within the military spouse community, check out newly revamped NextGen MilSpouse.

NextGen focuses on the challenges of today’s milspouse entrepreneur. They are looking for the best of the best within the writing community as they are a trusted resource. They pay $50 per guest post, which is pretty standard within the milspouse community. Check out what they’re looking for specifically on their website.

Delivery Driver

One new(ish) gig economy job is driving for Shipt or Instacart. Just like the other jobs, you can set your own hours, choose when and where you want to take orders. Veteran spouse Shauna Hill says it’s a great way for her to get out of the house when her husband is home and still make some money. Hill drives for Shipt.

“The pay is pretty decent too, the more work you put in the better you get paid. You will start to gain “regular” customers based on how they rate you as a shopper. The better your rating the more orders you are offered. It’s hard to put an average rate on it, but I typically get about $15-20 an order and it takes about an hour to complete most shops and deliveries.”

PCS Mentor

If you are looking for a way to help military spouses during their PCS, another option is to become a PCS Mentor with MilHousing Network. By connecting with spouses throughout the PCS process, you’ll be able to help them with things besides buying or selling a home. This position is great for the military spouse who likes to connect with others, makes friends easily and has personal experience with finding a rental home or buying/selling a home.

Gig economy jobs come in all forms. Some of them may lead to longer, more permanent jobs and some may be good just for a season. Just like some houses and some duty stations.

Keep Up with the Ins and Outs of Military Life

For the latest military news and tips on military family benefits and more, subscribe to Military.com and have the information you need delivered directly to your inbox.

–Rebecca Alwine can be reached at rebecca.alwine@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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