In recent years, workers at platform companies like Uber, Instacart, Shipt, Amazon, Deliveroo and others in Europe, Asia and Latin America have banded together, protesting their precarious conditions and organizing unions.
In California, the Rideshare Drivers United has organized almost 20,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in only a few years. In Brazil, thousands of delivery workers have loudly protested by crippling urban traffic. And in Toronto, Foodsters United made history by unionizing, with assistance from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, at Foodora (which then exited the Canadian market despite booming business).
These examples of organizing are important because they are occurring at the intersection of two crucial processes affecting work today: platformization and increasing precarity. The rise of work conducted through digital platforms is impossible to miss in the Canadian hospitality industry. Companies like Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes and Foodora have spawned a business model that feeds on restaurant profits by way of an app that mediates the relationship between restaurants, customers and workers.
While advocates argue that work conducted via such platforms is flexible and independent, serious concerns have been raised about the labour conditions of gig workers. Low and inconsistent wages, a lack of benefits or paid vacation, zero job security, algorithmic management and policy barriers to unionization have caused many to question if food delivery work is fair to workers.
So what’s on the mind of food delivery platform workers in Vancouver? In early 2020, supported by the BC Federation of Labour and the United Food and Commercial Workers 1518, we conducted a research project on Metro Vancouver food delivery work in the gig economy. We talked to trade unionists, reviewed media coverage, investigated food delivery platforms, interviewed workers and observed discussions on social media, aiming to find out more about labour conditions and opinions on unionizing among platform workers in the Lower Mainland.
The results of that study were released in a recently published report. The findings suggest this is a workforce to which organized labour should be paying close attention.
Our interviews revealed that while many delivery workers enjoyed the flexibility of working when they please and “not having a boss,” there was also cynicism about food delivery platforms. “The job is designed to favour the company, not the person working,” one worker said.
Many of the workers we spoke to had no allegiance to the platforms and found the idea of making a living from working for them downright humorous. As another participant said, “I don’t believe it’s ever gonna be a fully permanent thing, ’cause I don’t think — especially in Vancouver — that anyone can sustain themselves with the income you get from the app.”
Distrust of the platforms runs deep. “It does kind of feel like we’re risking more of our lives than we really should have to considering Uber is making so much money doing this. I know they’ve had losses, but it does kind of feel like we’re peasants, just kind of working under the behemoth that’s Uber.”
Despite the exploitative working conditions and critical attitudes we encountered, delivery workers gave mixed responses to the question of whether collective organizing might change things. In fact, many of the workers we spoke to seemed confused about what unionization would even mean.
Almost none had been in a union before, and some workers seemed not to understand what a union was nor the principles of democracy and solidarity they were founded upon. In the words of one delivery worker, “I can’t really say that I like or dislike a union because I’ve never worked for one.” Labour advocates have work to do locally to reach out to these workers and fill the knowledge gap.
Then came the pandemic. The research project pivoted to assess how the virus changed delivery work and how the community of workers was responding. Distrust for platforms only intensified as COVID-19 spread; inadequate pay and insufficient protections were discussed regularly on online forums. Workers were extremely bitter about being left to fend for themselves against algorithmic management and fickle customers amid a deadly pandemic.
But they also showed impressive levels of mutual aid and solidarity as they confronted these conditions. In forums, and outside of restaurants, they supported each other by sharing tips on where to get protective gear, how to navigate the frustrating interface at these companies, how to stay safe, and how to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
These examples of solidarity in the face of a pandemic tell us that collective organization is possible for Metro Vancouver’s food delivery platform workers. However, leadership from within this community must first emerge, and the benefits of collective action must be communicated clearly and accessibly.
Targeted use of social media in such a campaign would be well advised, as the highly successful example of the Rideshare Drivers union in southern California demonstrates. Individualism and entrepreneurialism may be everywhere in the gig economy, but so are the foundations of collective action.
Jessica Hu is a recent graduate of the communication program at Simon Fraser University, with a particular interest in technology and society.
Leslie Wang is a recent graduate of the sociology-communication joint major program at SFU. Catch her thoughts about sociocultural politics and media on 90.1FM (or cjsf.ca), Mondays from 3 to 4 p.m.
Clayton Wong is a Vancouver-based communication and publishing student at SFU, with a particular interest in social media, culture and its impact on society.
Enda Brophy (@enda_b) is an associate professor in the school of communication and an associate in the labour studies program at SFU.