by Anna Bianca Roach
Foodora workers laid their bikes on the ground, stood two metres apart, and blocked Richmond Street traffic in front of the company’s office on Friday afternoon. The workers chanted and gave speeches protesting Foodora’s recent decision to withdraw from the Canadian market.
Foodora couriers won the right to unionize roughly two months ago, and were looking forward to unsealing the union vote ballots that were cast last year to determine whether they would come under the banner of the CUPW.
The news that the company would be shuttering as of May 11th came as a shock to couriers, who’ve seen demand for food delivery spike since the beginning of the pandemic.
“They’re willing to take down the whole Canadian market to avoid working with couriers in Toronto,” said Thomas McKechnie, a longtime courier who played an important role in unionizing efforts. “We’re looking for them to reverse this decision and return to the table with us and let us build something good together.”
In the company’s April 27th statement, David Albert, Managing Director of Foodora Canada, explained they had faced steep competition in Canada, and that they were not able to “operate without having to continually absorb losses.” The next day, Delivery Hero, Foodora’s parent company in Germany, revealed that their number of orders “nearly doubled” compared to 2019 and that they anticipate no change in financial outlook due to the virus.
Classic union-busting, says CUPW president
Jan Simpson, CUPW’s national president, sees this sudden decision as a thinly-veiled union-busting tactic, she told the Toronto Star. In late February, the Ontario Labour Relations Board granted couriers the right to unionize and collectively bargain with the company, putting them on the track to becoming the country’s first unionized gig economy workers. Union vote ballots were cast last year when the drive was launched – but have yet to be unsealed.
The movement to unionize Foodora has been at the forefront of the struggle for labour rights in the Canadian gig economy. The OLRB’s decision earlier this year was a landmark decision, revolving mostly around the difference between “dependent” and “independent” contractors. The classification of independent contractors was meant to be applied to workers like plumbers, who provide specialized work to fill an unforeseen and irregular need.
“All of the things that we’re asking for in our campaigns are basic worker rights… We had proved in court over a long and arduous process that we were not independent contractors. And as soon as they saw that, they were like ‘Oh, we can’t actually handle that kind of relationship,’” said McKechnie.
Misclassifying workers as “independent contractors,” as opposed to employees or dependent contractors, exempts employers like Foodora from paying couriers benefits or an hourly wage. The legal definition of an independent contractor is quite clear, and gig workers like couriers who have little control over their schedule and no say in the company’s higher-level decisions fall outside of it. Before the Foodsters, the definition simply hadn’t been contested.
“We put the other companies who are operating this way notice that this is possible. This is doable, and the workers want this,” said McKechnie.
He sees Foodora’s exit from the Canadian market as a sign that the company’s business model is not sustainable.
While Delivery Hero brings in record profits, Foodora has filed for insolvency, and owes almost CAD5 million in taxes and payments to restaurants, office employees, creditors, and other expenses.
“We need to take a deep, hard look at the numbers that Foodora has released, because it shows a … structural failure and a business model which functions on really intense exploitation of workers. … We need to start looking at how these companies operate, and working in the legislative sphere to make it impossible to sort of build a company whose structure is based on denying workers rights,” he explains.
When the model was first popularized by Uber, it was framed as a win-win for entrepreneurs, simply a tool to connect people providing independent services. By taking control of restaurants’ and drivers’ income and work, these platforms are in the position to decide, with no negotiations with workers or restaurants, how much of that income should go to the company. Combined with the ease of misclassifying workers, that control makes this business model perfect for cutting labour costs. The result is an industry that pits riders against each other and lets them risk their lives on a daily basis.
This is now the second time that Foodora has left a market following a successful collective action. In June 2018, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman sued the company, claiming it was misclassifying and underpaying its workers; Foodora left Australia that August.
Couriers essential in pandemic, need more protection
“As the pandemic became more and more of a reality around us, we were more and more responsible for making the kinds of vital connections that make a city run, especially a city in an emergency,” added McKechnie.
Indeed, deliveries are a safer way for people to access food who may be immunocompromised or experiencing symptoms, allowing them not to have to risk exposure by leaving their homes. In early April, Foodora had even started delivering from pharmacies, allowing people experiencing flu-like symptoms to avoid going out and risking infecting other shoppers. Couriers’ work is essential, and it plays a part in reducing the number of cases that develop in Canada.
The work also got a lot more dangerous with occupational hazards now including exposure to the virus, but Foodora took few precautions to protect their workers. It was the union that stepped in to provide personal protective equipment. Starting March 13th, the company sent an email to couriers informing them of an “option” given to customers to request low-contact delivery. “Please read these carefully, and follow the directions by customers,” the email read. The following week, Foodsters United e-mailed the company back, asking that the company do more than providing optional contactless delivery to customers.
“Additionally we demanded the right to refuse unsafe work. A right which was violated for at least one courier,” one courier, who asked to stay anonymous, told RankandFile.ca.
On March 20th, the company sent out another email, informing couriers they can now choose to make low-contact deliveries; but, according to Foodsters United, the company never responded to couriers’ demand to be able to refuse unsafe work.
As the pandemic progresses, other food delivery companies might face the same situation that led Foodora to leave the market. What remains to be seen is whether they will step up to meet their workers’ needs in a time of crisis, or, like Foodora, leave them behind, alongside all the people who need this essential service.
McKechnie is not discouraged. “There is meaningful interest [in establishing a worker cooperative] both within and without the union,” he says. Because app-based companies don’t have to invest in any physical infrastructure, there are few obstacles to packing up shop if workers demand fair payment. But in a co-op, “the investment that the company has in the city is the workers themselves.”