British Uber driver win is promising, but gig workers still need basic rights

Written by , Ryerson University; , University of Toronto. Photo credit: AP Photo/Frank Augstein. Originally published in The Conversation.The Conversation

Uber drivers of the App Drivers & Couriers Union celebrate as they listen to a British Supreme Court decision that ruled Uber drivers should be classified as workers and not self-employed contractors.

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom recently ruled that Uber drivers are employees of the company and not simply using its technology as self-employed contractors.

Nicholas Humblen, a Supreme Court justice, explained:

“Drivers are in a position of subordination and dependency to Uber, such that they have little to no ability to improve their economic position or professional or entrepreneurial skill.”

The ruling makes clear that platforms should be required to offer basic benefits for the people “collaborating” with them. This ruling can have an impact beyond those in the U.K.

But where does the decision leave migrant gig workers?

These implications were discussed in a study recently presented under the auspices of the CERC Migration program, focusing on newcomer migrants who work in the gig economy, notably on platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit or Amazon Flex, to name a few.

Lack of Canadian experience

In Canada, new migrants are over-represented in the gig economy compared to Canadian-born populations. The stories are familiar — a newcomer enters through Canada’s points-based immigration system, rich in education and experience. But without Canadian experience, it’s next to impossible to land a job that offers career opportunities in their area of expertise.

While studying for a Canadian diploma, completing professional qualifications’ exams or volunteering in their field to get local experience, many newcomers take jobs in the platform economy. Such jobs offer a necessary stepping stone and are seen as a better alternative to typical, low-income work in the service or manufacturing sectors.

The Uber app is seen on an iPhone near a driver’s vehicle in January 2020 in Vancouver. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck.

The flexible nature of the work allows for a sense of control over one’s time and one’s finances — the more hours you work, the more you earn. But in time, they soon realize that there is no safety net for illness, income fluctuates unexpectedly with demand — you may drive for a whole day and earn just enough for your gas — and of course there are no career prospects. And yet newcomers feel platform work is worth it.

Why? Because the alternatives are even worse. Working for the low-skill service industry offers long hours, low pay, no flexibility, little security and no career prospects. The lack of meaningful alternatives facing newcomers can make platform work all the more attractive.

Not a lifelong job

Most newcomer workers who have spent a few years in the platform economy don’t believe the job is for life. To them, it’s only a means to an end. At the same time, the flexibility, freedom, and opportunity to generate extra cash can make platform work difficult to walk away from.

So where does the problem lie? From a short-term perspective, it’s the lack of a safety net for those who work in the platform economy. There are ongoing debates globally about whether platform workers should be treated as employees instead of independent contractors or even become unionized. None of these debates have yet resulted in a significant change, but there may be some hope on the horizon.

Changing the working conditions in platforms requires political will and regulations must apply to all platforms. It’s still a turbulent process – Foodora simply abandoned Canada when their workers made a move to unionize. And gig companies in California are taking advantage of the state’s Proposition 22 ruling to further exploit workers as contractors.

An Uber driver and member of the Mobile Workers Alliance outside Los Angeles City Hall in January 2021. Drivers for app-based ride-hailing and delivery services are suing to overturn Proposition 22. Photo credit: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes.

Increasingly precarious

Migrants who face labour market barriers are stepping into platform work that is growing increasingly precarious. The aftermath of COVID-19 has the potential to create a flood of gig workers, as data from Statistics Canada show an influx of gig employees during periods of economic recession. There are dire implications if gig companies end up absorbing the migrant workforce.

The longer term solution in Canada is to restructure the labour market and look at how we are matching qualified migrants to work. The work available to highly skilled newcomers doesn’t match their education and experience. Canada has to do more to help newcomers find decent work.

One interesting initiative under consideration involves reassessing competencies so that previous professional experience is more easily recognized in the labour market.

Another avenue to explore is educating employers on the skills possessed by newcomers and how they can be applied to the Canadian labour market. This should be easy in a country like Canada, where more than 20 per cent of the population was born abroad. Organizations like the Immigrant Employment Council of BC and the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council are doing this work. Their efforts must be supported and boosted significantly.