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Social entrepreneurs fight to make gig work fairer, greener

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* Gig work offers flexibility, but activists warn against low wages and few benefits

* Digital labor platforms have increased five-fold in 10 years

* New businesses use gig model to pay fair wages, cut emissions

By Kim Harrisberg

DURBAN, Sept 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Londoner Rich Mason signed up as a bicycle food delivery rider in 2017, he found the long hours, poor pay and lack of communication from management “jaw-dropping” – so he started his own delivery app instead.

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One of his proudest moments was in June this year when his phone pinged with the first order on his Wings platform, which he says pays bicycle couriers above minimum wage, is an eco-friendly alternative to motorbikes and supports family-run restaurants.

“We wanted to create a model that is good for riders, good for society and good for the environment,” said Mason, 32, adding that he wanted to humanize the gig economy into a model that is worker-focused.

“Our brand is built on community,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call, adding that Wings also partners with local charities to deliver food to people in need.

The gig economy – where people pick up work in a flexible manner – boomed during COVID-19 lockdowns, as people around the world suddenly needed goods and food delivered to their homes and millions of newly jobless were looking for work.

By 2020, there were more than 777 digital labor platforms – from food delivery to web design – around the world, up from about 140 a decade earlier, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

But many people drawn to gig work for its flexibility have reported being exploited by companies paying low wages, and offering weak insurance policies and no sick leave while encouraging long hours.

Now social enterprises like Wings are trying to rejig the gig economy model by offering tech-driven, on-demand services that prioritize workers’ rights and ethical supply chains.

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“It is always exciting to see communities taking ownership of digital tools for work and production in a way that is fair and inclusive,” said Kelle Howson, a researcher at Fairwork, a gig economy research project at the Oxford Internet Institute.

PLANET AND PEOPLE

At the large companies that dominate the gig platform sphere, most delivery drivers are classified as “partners,” not employees, meaning they have flexible work hours but few to no benefits, such as healthcare or paid leave.

But some businesses are using elements of the gig economy – like reliance on tech, employment flexibility and direct-to-consumer orders – to create both profit and social change.

In 2014, Colombian entrepreneur Diego Benitez launched SiembraViva, an e-commerce platform that connects rural smallholder farmers with consumers while helping the farmers transition to organic produce through training and technical support.

The platform uses a WhatsApp chatbot to gather planting information from farmers to determine their ideal harvesting schedules based on customer demand, reducing waste and guaranteeing an income for the farmers.

“We work to make the fruit and veg supply chains sustainable, inclusive and efficient,” said the 40-year-old former banker, who hopes to expand into other countries in South America in the coming years.

Similar startups have sprung up around the world from Namibia to the United States, utilizing technology and direct-to-consumer models to help small-scale, organic farmers hold their own against bigger grocery stores.

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A core component of the gig economy involves door-to-door deliveries and Spanish courier company Koiki realized they could boost eco-friendly job opportunities for people at risk of social exclusion, like migrants or homeless people.

Koiki provides the technology, training and parcels for delivery people who are hired by partner charities or organizations, said marketing director Patricia De Francisco, adding that all parcels are delivered on foot or on bike to reduce the company’s carbon emissions.

Many of Koiki’s 150 couriers have physical or mental disabilities and they work out of delivery centers in their own neighborhoods so that the routes are familiar to them, said De Francisco.

“They were the heroes of the pandemic, the only ones on the roads delivering medicine and food to people in need,” she said, adding that all workers are on fixed or flexible contracts aligned with the minimum wage.

“We realize we have to take care of the planet and people if we want to be here longer,” said De Francisco.

In East Africa, Kenya-based Digital Lions became the world’s first Fairtrade verified digital agency, highlighting the enterprise’s commitment to fair pay and environmental protection using solar power and emissions offsetting.

The company has trained 300 members of the largely pastoralist community on the shores of Lake Turkana in business and tech skills, helping them enter the international market as web designers, animators and more.

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“We can create jobs in remote areas, empower and educate women and deliver quality service, that’s very hard to beat,” said co-founder Jan Veddeler.

Major gig platforms are beginning to take note of smaller players in the sector, with some incorporating their social impact goals into their own model.

In June European gig companies Delivery Hero, Bolt, Glovo, and Wolt announced the European Purpose Project – an online consultation inviting individuals to help draw up an inclusive gig economy code of conduct.

In India, businesses working with temporary staff like garment and construction workers have begun turning to LabourNet, a training and employment mediator for gig workers that has helped improve work contracts and social security benefits.

So far they have helped 8,000 people with the aim of reaching 15,000 in the coming year, said founder Gayathri Vasudevan.

Bigger corporates have also used their capital to fund ethical gig platforms – like Robinhood – launched by Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank last year to help small food businesses that had taken a hit during lockdowns.

Launched as part of the bank’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative, the app does not charge merchants a fee for listing on the platform, and has drawn 150,000 small food vendors and more than 2 million subscribers.

‘READY FOR ETHICAL ALTERNATIVES’

Co-operatives and enterprises like Wings and SiembraViva say consumer demand and decision making is a huge factor in rethinking the gig economy model.

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Customers are getting more discerning about how online services use their money and their impact on communities and the environment, said Mason at Wings.

“People are ready for ethical alternatives … I hope we will have built up a loyalty in our community that will come through for us and stand with us if an Uber Eats tries to kill us off in a year or two,” he said.

But customer loyalty alone is not enough, said Howson, the gig economy expert.

“To enable (these) enterprises to succeed, we need changes in wider commercial, tax, supply-chain and labor policy settings … (regulation) should favor companies providing maximum social and economic benefits to local communities,” she said over email.

Social entrepreneurs like Benitez agree that the gig economy is not going anywhere, but that using elements of the gig model for good would make it both more sustainable and profitable.

“Success is not just about money. We can make money and capture carbon and create equitable supply chains for farmers … we can do it all, so that the next generation lives in a better place than we do now,” he said.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg //news.trust.org)

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Moves wants to reward gig workers with shares in Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub – TechCrunch

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Moves, a Toronto-based gig economy fintech startup, wants to reward gig workers with stocks from the companies for which they drive. The first version of the Moves Collective, as the startup’s new service is called, launches on Thursday with Uber stocks available and then quickly offer Lyft, DoorDash and Grubhub shares, says CEO of Moves, Matt Spoke.

Moves’s thesis is this: If gig workers become shareholders, they might feel more economic alignment to the platforms they work for. Furthermore, if enough workers own stocks in these companies through the Moves Collective, they might be able to form a voting bloc in the future and actually influence company decisions. Moves says it already owns a “significant and growing stake” in these companies, all of which are common shares with voting rights.

Over the past year, poor working conditions for gig economy workers have led to worker protests and attempts by states like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York to reclassify gig workers as employees, worthy of all the basic rights that status affords, such as health care, vacation pay and paid sick leave. Companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have fought back against the ongoing debacle in California over Prop 22 and have formed a coalition in Massachusetts to get a proposal on the November 2022 ballot that would classify gig workers as independent contractors.

“Gig workers contribute a huge amount of value to the gig economy, but they don’t get any of the economic returns as a result of the value they’re contributing, and that’s what we’re trying to solve for is effectively making them feel like they have an economic stake in the success of the companies that they work for,” Matt Spoke, CEO of Moves, told TechCrunch.

Workers who are already a part of the Moves platform – which enables gig workers to track and manage their money from different companies, have access to a monthly spending account and instant business cash advances up to $1,000 – are eligible to sign up for the Collective and receive rewards in the form of stocks. Moves will give workers a series of “tasks” to complete, like refer three friends or participate in a user survey, in order to receive free stocks, or fractions of stocks, which then go into the user’s own brokerage account that Moves has opened for them.

In the long run, the Moves Collective, aptly named, is meant to bring gig workers together and leverage the power in numbers to create a voice that can be used in corporate governance decisions. Moves would propose proxy material submissions at annual general shareholder meetings of the major platforms in order to ensure the interests of gig workers are heard, says Spoke.

Moves’s primary business relies on interchange rates that it is accumulated every time a gig worker uses their Moves card to make a purchase, and it’s that revenue which funds the shares Moves gives back to the workers.

“We’re effectively trading off revenue to acquire new customers and hold on to them, if you want to think of it that way,” said Spoke. “So the revenues we earn off the use of your checking account are being put back into the product to finance these rewards that are effectively denominated in stocks.”

At the moment, the program is invite-only and shares are accumulated via a partnership with Bumped Financial, a stock rewards program. Spoke says Moves will also keep an eye out for Instacart’s IPO to purchase stock for its platform, and is even considering supporting Amazon stock for Flex delivery people or Target stock for Shipt workers. 

All of the app-based gig economy companies “suffer from the same problem,” says Spoke, “which is a massively high percentage of driver and worker churn rates. Their workers just don’t stick around. They either leave to go to another gig app or they leave the gig economy altogether. So these companies are spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars replacing workers all the time.”

(See: Uber spends $250 million to incentivize drivers back to the app, which then results in crushing Q2 losses.)

Before their IPOs Uber and Lyft considered issuing stock to drivers as a mechanism to increase retention and create worker loyalty, but there are different regulatory issues that got in the way of a sincere effort on the companies’ parts. In the end, the two companies decided to reward some more active drivers with a one-time cash award that gave them the option to buy stock. Uber, for example, set aside 5.4 million shares, which was 3% of total shares, of its common stock for drivers, but said it would offer those to the public if drivers didn’t scoop them up.

For reference, former Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who owned 8.6% of Uber at the time of public filing, made about $5 billion on his stake, and Alphabet, which owned 5.2% of the company, took home around $3.2 billion. U.S.-based drivers at the time had the option of using cash bonuses which could be used to purchase up to $10,000 worth of company stock.

Companies that rely on the gig economy do have a harder regulatory time giving out stock options to workers. SEC Rule 701 allows companies to issue stock to employees, consultants and advisors as compensation without having to submit detailed financial records, but gig companies don’t fit neatly into that current exemption. In 2018, the SEC called for comment on possible ways to expand the rule to adjust to the changing nature of work relationships. Uber responded, albeit past the deadline, but with a request that the SEC revise the rule in order to allow “partners to share in the growth of the company which could lead to enhanced earning and saving opportunities for the partner and for the generations ahead.”

As the laws currently stand, if Uber or Lyft were so inclined to incentivize drivers themselves with stocks, it would encroach dangerously on employer territory. However, the company’s past stance signals it might makes sense to one day outsource this kind of service.

“Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have come together on topics like Prop 22, they’re lobbying together against new regulations, and so I don’t think it’s inconceivable that they would see this as being generally positive for the industry,” said Spoke. “Eventually I think we’re going to end up wanting to find some way to share the economics with them. Fast forward a year or two years, I definitely see us talking to Uber about the tangible benefits that we are able to demonstrate and say, ‘A driver that was issued Uber stock is X% more likely to stick around longer, so you should be partially participating in funding this.’”

Moves says it currently has about 10,000 users on its platform across all 50 states. The company was founded in February 2020, right before ride-hailing took a massive pandemic-sized dip, and has been in the markets since April 2021. The plan is to begin fundraising again in the first half of next year, but Spoke said Moves doesn’t want to do that until it refines the unit economics in the narrative of the business and creates a use case for Moves Collective.

“It’s not that Uber doesn’t care about their drivers but that their drivers are not their primary stakeholder,” said Spoke. “Their primary stakeholder is their consumer. They do everything they can to innovate value for the consumer side of their markets, and often the workers are sort of an afterthought.”

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Gender and gig work: Perspectives from domestic work in India

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Platforms have the potential to be instrumental in protecting workers rights, but the current platform design is not optimised to protect workers’ interests especially those of women in the gig economy, argues Ambika Tandon, a senior researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society in India and an author of the report on ‘Platforms, Power and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India’.

Digital labour platforms, broadly defined as digital interfaces that enable the exchange of goods or services, have grown exponentially in cities across the world. In sectors such as transportation and delivery, Uber and similar platforms have achieved dominant status, while in other sectors platforms are still making inroads to transform consumption patterns. Researchers at India’s Centre for Internet and Society, sought to understand the impact platforms have had on the paid domestic and care work sector in India, given its importance for women workers. The workforce in this sector is largely constituted of women from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (or caste-oppressed) and low-income groups, with a long history of socioeconomic and legal devaluation and lack of recognition. In this context, platforms have positioned themselves as intermediaries that will improve wages and conditions of work, pushing the sector towards formalisation.

To assess the impact of digital platforms on processes of recruitment and placement and on organisation and conditions of work, we undertook 60 in-depth interviews between June and November 2019. We chose two metropolitan cities, New Delhi in north India and Bengaluru in south India, as our field sites. These are key nodes in the migration corridors of domestic workers in the country. We spoke to workers who were searching for hourly or regular work through platforms, representatives of platform companies and state and central governments, as well as domestic workers unions. We found that platform design breeds and amplifies exclusion and discrimination along the lines of gender and caste, among other social characteristics.

Illustration by Shruti Lal

Uber for domestic work

We found that the function of digital platforms in the sector is contingent on the historical organisation of domestic work, rather than any fundamental re-organisation of the supply chain. Unlike in the global North, platforms in India have thus far been unable to ‘gig-ify’, that is, break up most tasks that constitute domestic work – including child and elderly care and cooking – into short-term granular services that have been standardised. Domestic workers continue to find regular term full-time placements through marketplace platforms, which only connect employers to workers with no other role in determining work conditions. HelpersNearMe and Helper4u are examples of platforms that play this role by listing profiles of workers and making these available to employers. These placements are no different from work in the ‘offline’ sector, with complete informality and very little standardisation around hours, wages, and task constitution. As compared to this, on-demand platforms that offer short-term gigs (similar to the Uber model) have grown exponentially in the ‘deep’ cleaning segment by marketing it as a professional service with higher value than ‘regular’ cleaning services.

The function of digital platforms in the sector is contingent on the historical organisation of domestic work, rather than any fundamental re-organisation of the supply chain.

Cleaning gigs provided by on-demand companies have higher hourly wages than ‘regular’ cleaning services in the traditional sector. But accessing these opportunities requires workers to have regular access to a smartphone throughout the day, to be able to accept or reject tasks and receive payments through a mobile application or web-portal. Women workers from low income families have very low levels of digital access, with most phones being shared between families and controlled by male members. Also, the use of technical equipment such as vacuum cleaners and chemicals has led to deep cleaning being viewed as a masculine task. As a result, almost all cleaning workers we identified in the on-demand sector were men, even though cleaning is a feminised job role in the traditional economy. Some cleaning workers we spoke to did not identify as domestic workers at all, but rather viewed their work as holding a higher status than traditional cleaning. This trend of masculinisation of a job role coinciding with higher wages and social status has also been seen in other sectors globally, such as software programming.

Illustration by Shruti Lal

Promises and risks of low-tech platforms

One of the reasons that women workers are more likely to find work through marketplace platforms rather than on-demand agencies is because they only require workers to have a basic or feature phone for one-time registration, and subsequently to answer calls from potential employers or the platform. Most platforms in this category do not intervene in task allocation or terms of work, which are negotiated directly between workers and employers. Algorithms and digital interfaces then only facilitate matching, as opposed to on-demand work where all aspects of the job are determined by the platform. This allows women workers to register using shared family phones, or those of their friends, neighbours, and in the case of one of our respondents, her landlady’s phone number. These platforms then may be able to provide placement opportunities to workers who are unable to find work through word-of-mouth networks. This is especially crucial as a result of the unemployment crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, unlike with the on-demand model, these platforms do not offer increased wages or provide better conditions of work.

Although marketplace platforms provide an additional route into finding opportunities in the sector, they also codify employers’ biases through their design. All marketplace platforms and digital placement agencies we reviewed – upwards of 20 companies – provide demographic filters to employers for filtering workers’ profiles. These include information on workers’ gender, age, religion, state of origin, and in one case, even caste. While practices of employing workers based on demographic characteristics are rampant in the sector historically, platforms build them in by design and market them as a key feature of what they are able to offer employers. These open up direct avenues for employers to discriminate against workers from minority religions and oppressed castes. It also reinforces gendered occupational segregation, as employers seek out women workers for feminised roles such as cleaning and care work, and men for tasks such as gardening and plumbing.

Power structures endemic to the domestic work sector continue to thrive in the platform economy, as do gender and caste-based occupational segregation.

Platforms have been making claims of formalising the informal sector, especially in global South economies, through increasing efficiency in matching workers to employers. Despite having the potential to be instrumental in protecting workers rights, currently platform design is not optimised to protect workers’ interests. Power structures endemic to the domestic work sector continue to thrive in the platform economy, as do gender and caste-based occupational segregation. To be able to nudge the sector towards formalisation, platforms need to directly intervene in power structures and co-design with workers, rather than merely functioning as digital recruiters. This could imply adopting practices such as removing demographic details where not relevant, introducing written contracts and minimum wage floors for placements, and addressing gender gaps in some segments of the digital economy.

This work forms part of a project on ‘Platforms, Power and Politics: Perspectives from Domestic and Care Work in India’, supported by the Association for Progressive Communications. You can read more about the project here, and find the full project report here.  

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Uber drivers, gig workers pressure Ontario government for employee status

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People in Ontario who drive or deliver for apps such as Uber, Lyft and Skip the Dishes are calling on Premier Doug Ford’s government to grant them basic workers’ rights by classifying them as employees.

It’s an issue that directly affects hundreds of thousands of people who work in the province’s gig economy, and could have implications for all workers across Ontario and in other provinces.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake and there are clear signs that some sort of action is imminent:

  • Industry sources tell CBC News they expect the Ford government will soon reveal new measures regarding wages and benefits for gig workers. 
  • Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton is promising legislation by the end of the month as part of “broader efforts to protect and support vulnerable workers, such as those who have kept essential goods moving and the economy going through the pandemic.”  
  • A government-appointed advisory panel is working on recommendations “to ensure Ontario’s technology platform workers benefit from flexibility, control, and security.”

The app companies are profiting from having a workforce at the ready, yet don’t provide those workers the rights and benefits of employees, says Brice Sopher, who delivers for Uber Eats and serves as vice-president of the union-backed group Gig Workers United.  

“There is nothing right now stopping Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and these other app-based employment companies from offering us full employee rights. They are just choosing not to,” Sopher told CBC News. “They have all the advantages with none of the responsibilities.” 

Brice Sopher does delivery work for Uber Eats and is vice-president of the group Gig Workers United. (CBC)

Since app-based workers are currently classified as independent contractors under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, they are not entitled to minimum wage, vacation days or statutory holiday pay. The companies they work for do not have to pay Employment Insurance premiums or Canada Pension Plan contributions.

“There is no reason why we don’t deserve full employment rights,” said Sopher. “Anything less than that is a lowering of the bar for all workers.”  

Even those whose jobs are outside the gig economy should still be concerned about the issue, says Sopher. He says if Ontario does not classify app-based workers as employees, companies will have an incentive to convert their existing employees to gig workers, stripping them of employment rights.

While McNaughton is not promising to classify app workers as employees, he says new protections are on the way. 

“There’s going to be more to come on this in the days ahead,” he said Wednesday in an interview with CBC News.  

“It’s wrong, quite frankly, when we see app-based workers making $3 an hour or anything less than a minimum wage. They deserve more, and we’re going to deliver for them,” said McNaughton.

  • Do you drive or deliver for app companies? Email CBC News if you’re willing to be interviewed about your working conditions. 

Officials from Uber Canada declined a request for an interview, but a spokesperson emailed a statement to CBC News.

“What’s important is that we prioritize what drivers and delivery people want: flexibility plus benefits,” said the spokesperson.

App-based workers want Premier Doug Ford’s government to force the companies to provide greater transparency on how their pay is calculated. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

The spokesperson referred to a proposal the company calls Flexible Work+. It would not grant Uber drivers the status of employees with the right to minimum wage and holiday pay, but would provide a cash-based benefit fund that the workers could dip into for any reason, whether a paid day off or to cover the cost of medications.

Uber Canada’s proposal does not commit to how much it would pay into the benefits fund, but it uses rates of two to four per cent of a driver’s income as what it calls “illustrative examples.”    

The question of whether app-based workers should be classed as employees is at issue in a $400-million class-action lawsuit against Uber Canada on behalf of its Ontario drivers. 

“When you actually look at the relationship and you look at the control that Uber has over these drivers in many different ways, that’s where you see that there is in fact, an employee-employer relationship,” said employment lawyer Samara Belitzky.

Belitzky is with the Toronto-based law firm Samfiru Tumarkin, which is bringing the class-action suit on behalf of the estimated 360,000 people who have driven for Uber in Ontario since 2012. 

Tens of thousands of people in Ontario work for app-based transport and delivery companies such as Uber, Lyft, Skip The Dishes and Doordash. (Carlos Osorio/CBC)

Ontario’s Employment Standards Act previously put the onus on employers to prove that their workers are independent contractors, Belitzky said, but the Ford government changed that in its 2018 rollback of provincial labour law. The burden of proof now rests with the workers.   

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has led attempts at unionizing app-based workers. The delivery company Foodora ceased its operations in Canada in the spring of 2020 in the wake of one such unionization drive. 

Failing to classify gig workers as employees “is creating two classes of workers right now within our society, and we do not want that,” said CUPW president Jan Simpson. 

“If the Ford government truly wanted to to support workers in a just economic recovery, they must get rid of the misclassification,” Simpson said in an interview. 

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is in the midst of a series of announcements on workers’ rights, with a provincial election looming next June. 

On Monday, McNaughton revealed measures to tighten rules for temp agencies and firms that recruit foreign workers

Jan Simpson is the president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which has led unionizing drives among app-based delivery workers and drivers. (Canadian Union of Postal Workers)

On Wednesday, he announced plans for ‘right to pee’ legislation, which would ban locations from denying delivery drivers access to their washrooms, a common practice during the pandemic. 

While drivers welcomed that news, many are looking for much more from Ontario’s government.  

“There was a time during the pandemic when they could have very easily brought in measures to protect gig workers,” said Sopher. “That never happened.” 

In particular, app-based workers want greater transparency on how their pay is calculated. 

“My pay can vary 50 per cent from one day to the next,” said Sopher, who delivers exclusively for Uber Eats. “I have no idea how much I make per kilometre or why it’s different at a different time. All of that information is hidden from me.” 

The employment status of app-based workers has been a hot issue elsewhere in Canada and in the U.S.

In British Columbia, a union failed in its bid to have ride-sharing drivers classified as employees. This month, the same union said three Vancouver-area Uber drivers were unjustly fired for refusing unsafe work. 

Ontario’s government has announced plans for ‘right to pee’ legislation, which would ban locations from denying delivery drivers access to their washrooms, a common practice during the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

During the federal election campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole proposed a flexible benefits package for gig workers that echoed some of what Uber is pitching.  

In California, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash led a push to classify app-based workers as contractors, making them exempt from the state’s minimum wage and overtime laws. Facilitated by that change, U.S. grocery chain Albertsons laid off delivery workers employed by its 2,200 stores earlier this year and replaced its service with DoorDash.

It’s unclear how many people in Ontario work for the app-based companies, but it definitely numbers in the tens of thousands and there’s some evidence it could exceed 100,000.

Pre-pandemic research by Statistics Canada found 10 per cent of the labour force in the Toronto area to be gig workers, along with eight to nine per cent of the workforce across Ontario. That would suggest some 700,000 people work in the gig economy in the province, with a significant portion of them driving or delivering for app companies.

Uber Canada said “tens of thousands” of drivers are currently on its platform in Ontario, but declined to provide a more precise estimate, citing competitive reasons. 

Survey data from 2016 by Statistics Canada found 36,000 people in Ontario driving for ride-sharing apps such as Uber.

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