Bike couriers deliver food in cold weather and hot, and when the weather is the worst, demand for their services is highest. Nobody wants to be outside when it’s -40, but for workers doing a precarious job with no security, that demand often translates into feeling compelled to work in unpleasant or downright dangerous conditions. After the brutally cold winter that started 2018 began to subside, a group of Foodora bike couriers met in a downtown Toronto park to commiserate over just that situation.
Barely a year later, those first park meetings have resulted in what may be a landmark moment for Canadian labour: Foodora couriers announced on May 1 their intention to unionize with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. If successful, they would be the first group of “gig economy” workers in the country to exert their right to organize.
Precarious working conditions
Among the main issues couriers discussed at the launch were low wages, the dangerous nature of the job for cyclists, and the lack of respect they sense from their employer.
“In the more than three years I’ve been working for Foodora, I’ve seen the respect they show their workers slowly but steadily decline,” courier Alexander Kurth said. “Our wages have stagnated or even declined while inflation and costs of living have increased, and our overall working conditions have become increasingly precarious, unreliable, and unfair.”
Precarity pervades every aspect of their work, from pay to scheduling to how they have to deal with injuries. The couriers at the union drive launch on Wednesday all described an overwhelming sense that they were shouldering all the responsibilities and dangers of the job while Foodora offers no protections or even basic acknowledgement of their labour.
The scramble to make ends meet starts with scheduling for couriers, who compete with each other to snap up shifts when they become available. In the summer months when more people are interested in picking up cash while they bike around town, that scramble becomes especially hectic.
“If we get a shift drop at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday, or 10 o’clock, literally at 10:01 everything’s taken,” courier Hunter Sanassian said. “And once the shifts are gone, that’s it.”
All the risks and little reward
Couriers are paid per delivery, which means more deliveries equals more money and vice versa. But they are only paid for the travel from restaurant to customer. Allison Janzen said that while a typical three to four-hour shift will involve biking “at least around 40 kilometres,” half of that travel is typically getting to restaurants to pick up orders. This is, of course, integral to completing the job, but is completely unpaid.
Cyclists have to cover their bike repairs and drivers have to shoulder their own gas and insurance costs. And for cyclists especially, whose physical health is crucial to meeting the needs of a demanding job, the lack of health benefits means shouldering the costs of optometrists and physiotherapists, or, in many cases, going without and hoping for the best.
A significant factor abetting all of this precarity is the way these workers are classified — or, as CUPW and the couriers themselves argue, misclassified — by Foodora. Despite having no control over things like wages and scheduling (workers sign up for the shifts they want but missing one, even for something as serious as a family health emergency, can mean being “deprioritized” as a worker), Foodora insists its couriers are independent contractors, just as Uber does with its drivers.
The union effort is tackling this head-on, making the case that the much-vaunted freedom of “gig economy” jobs is largely illusory and obscures the power relations at play between workers and companies.
“This allows them to shirk their basic, bare-minimum legal responsibilities towards their workers,” Kurth said. “The reality of our work is that we are in no way independent. We are told what to do, where to be and when to be there, and what we get paid. None of this is negotiable. We have all the responsibilities of employees without any of the protections.”
Or, as the chant went when the couriers took to a rainy King St. on Wednesday afternoon after triumphantly gathering just outside the Foodora head office: “Gig economy, same old crap! Exploitation in an app!”
While the exploitation of workers remains the same, the nature of working in the gig economy is different in some respects from more traditional jobs, and some of those differences have impacted the organizing drive. With no central workplace where coworkers can get to know each other and congregate, and with a constantly shifting workforce, basic organizational tools such as developing a staff list and finding time to approach people about the union required creativity. Sanassian explained some of the ways they have approached this challenge.
One method was to hold events on skills couriers might want to develop further, such as filing taxes and doing bike repairs, and try to advertise them widely. With a group of couriers gathered together, organizers could broach the topic of unionization away from the brief interactions couriers might have if they are picking up orders at the same time. Another way to ensure that they were reaching people was to go to them, rather than invite them to come to an event.
“A lot of times we would specifically ride up and down Spadina, and anyone we saw with a pink bag, we’d ride along with them, we’d be like, ‘Hey, this is happening, come along to a meeting,’” Sanassian said.
At the afternoon bike ride organized to show support for the union drive, there was a palpable air of excitement and confidence. When asked what they hope to see happen next, one early member of the drive, Drago Car, said he hopes to the Foodora couriers’ efforts will be the first of many instances of gig economy workers unionizing in Canada. “I hope that more people will join us. This is the first push, union drive, in the gig economy in Canada, and we hope that other workers will join us.”