Hitting the streets on May Day, a group of Foodora couriers launched a union drive with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Under the banner of “Justice for Foodora Couriers,” their main demands are fair compensation for dangerous work, the ability to recover when sick or injured, and a respectful workplace free from harassment and intimidation. CUPW has organized a series of actions to support the couriers (who call themselves “foodsters”), including a march on May 15 that saw about 1,000 CUPW members, a contingent from Labour Fightback, and other supporters join the foodsters in solidarity.
Foodsters and other gig economy workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers are currently classified as “independent contractors,” depriving them of protection under Canadian labour laws. They receive almost no training, no stable pay, no health benefits, no vacation or sick days, and work in isolation from their fellow workers. Foodsters have to provide most of their equipment themselves and pay for repairs out-of-pocket. The cost of bike maintenance can add up quickly, with some foodsters spending $3,000 annually just to keep working.
The lack of health benefits and proper safety equipment is particularly alarming considering the dangerous nature of the job. Toronto streets are notoriously hazardous for cycling, and virtually all experienced cyclists have been hit by a car door at least once. Foodsters have to continue their shifts even in inclement weather, on icy roads, and late at night. Because foodsters are paid by the delivery, they have an incentive to take dangerous shortcuts such as weaving through traffic and running red lights.
To make matters worse, whether foodsters get paid at all depends on whether they have the highest average speed out of couriers in the area, putting them in direct competition with their fellow workers. Such a cutthroat system erodes solidarity, as your ability to earn an income depends on your ability to one-up your coworkers. The company boasts about the fact that foodsters earn an average of $21/hour, but there’s no guarantee they’ll earn anything at all in a given shift. If business is slow, it is the workers who pay, effectively offloading risk onto those who can afford it least.
For this reason, the rise of the gig economy can be viewed as a symptom of capitalism in crisis. In previous eras of economic boom, restaurants were able to hire full-time, in-house deliverers and pay them a stable wage. Now, with belt-tightening and layoffs as the order of the day, businesses are more interested in cutting corners and offloading risk, even if it means relying on unvetted workers who’ve received just an hour of training.
Foodsters accept this raw deal because they don’t have a better option. Many have a university education, but still find it impossible to find stable employment. Workers’ rights that were won through a century of struggle such as health benefits, sick days, vacation days, abolition of piecework, etc. have been thrown out the window. In true Orwellian fashion, this great leap backwards is being sold as a new form of freedom, with slogans like “Be your own boss” and “Set your own hours”.
Judging by the foodsters’ union drive and others like it, it appears that this re-branding is losing its effectiveness. Every day, more and more precarious workers are recognizing themselves not as “disruptors” or “entrepreneurs,” but as some of the most exploited members of the working class. They’re connecting their struggle to a wider crisis of capitalism. It is becoming more and more clear that the gig economy isn’t the mark of a wonderfully innovative system, but a sick capitalist system that needs to be overthrown.
Victory to the foodsters!
End precarious work!
For union rights and socialism!