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What’s Ahead for BC Gig Workers

As another round of consultations ends, government promises action.

Zak Vescera 27 Sep 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

As the latest round of consultations on protections for app-based drivers and food delivery workers in B.C. comes to an end, companies and workers are awaiting the government’s decision.

But a document obtained under a freedom of information request and recent interviews suggest a possible direction.

In March 2022, Labour Minister Harry Bains met officials from Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers union to talk about worker protections.

Handwritten notes from the meeting, taken by deputy minister Trevor Hughes, set out Bain’s position then.

“Workers of Uber should be covered by the ESA [Employment Standards Act] unless ruled otherwise,” the note summarizes Bain’s comments. “We are looking at the economy and precarious workers.”

The Employment Standards Act sets out minimum protections for workers on wages, paid sick days, severance and other benefits.

Drivers for food delivery and ride-hailing services in B.C. are currently treated as independent contractors running their own businesses, not employees, and are not covered under the act.

The Employment Standards Branch, which enforces the act, decides on employee status and hasn’t made any “definitive rulings” about whether drivers for companies like Uber are employees, said Brad Spencer, a spokesman with the Ministry of Labour.

In a statement the ministry said the note “was not the Minister of Labour providing any definitive statement about the legal employment status of Uber drivers.”

“As Minister Bains has noted in the past, many gig workers may in fact be employees for the purposes of the Employment Standards Act, and an employer labelling them as ‘independent contractors’ is not what determines a worker’s legal employment status,” Spencer wrote.

Bains has committed to a new law he says will bring “basic protections” to gig workers like drivers.

And his approach appears to have shifted since the March 2022 meeting.

In public statements, Bains has said app drivers are a new type of worker that wasn’t considered when employment standards were drafted.

“We are looking to make sure these workers have basic, minimum protections, whether that is wages or whether that is health and safety,” Bains said in an August interview with The Tyee. “What you call them is academic, in my view.”

The BC NDP has promised better protections for gig workers since it was first elected in 2017.

The government has held meetings with hundreds of gig drivers, who complained of low, unpredictable pay, the lack of benefits and arbitrary removal from those apps.

Many also reported they wanted to retain the ability to work their own flexible hours rather than being classified as employees.

A discussion paper released by the Ministry of Labour earlier this year indicated it is now exploring alternate standards for gig workers.

In a written statement, Uber spokesperson Keerthana Rang said the company’s drivers are not employees.

“Any changes introduced must clearly recognize that app-based work is distinct from traditional employment, include a clear definition of worker independence and offer commensurate benefits and protections,” Rang wrote.

Uber and UFCW have been jointly lobbying Bains and other government officials since early 2022 to promote a package of government reforms they say would improve pay and protections for platform-based gig workers like Uber drivers.

Uber drivers are not dues-paying UFCW members, but the union struck a deal with Uber in 2022 that saw it take up a representation role.

UFCW did not respond to a request for comment.

UFCW and Uber have proposed changes to let delivery drivers unionize, guarantee minimum pay and provide benefits and workplace accident coverage. They would not be designated as employees.

Since early 2022, Uber lobbyists have had frequent contact with officials in the Ministry of Labour, according to the province’s lobbyist registry. That registry says lobbyists contacted current chief of staff Tim Renneberg nine times between February 2022 and February 2023. Lobbyists also contacted or held meetings with Bains, Premier David Eby, Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon, Opposition labour critic Greg Kyllo and other MLAs.

The company’s director of public policy and communications in Canada is Laura Miller, former executive director for the BC Liberal Party, which has since rebranded as BC United.

On July 25, representatives from the company and UFCW met with Bains and Eby.

A briefing note obtained under FOI legislation prepared for Eby notes the “lack of clarity on the application of B.C.’s employment laws to app-based ride-hail and food delivery workers.”

“Further, the issue is of import because some of the digital platform companies take a view that their workers are self-employed independent contractors who are exempt from employment laws,” the note says.

Jim Stanford, a labour economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, says Uber and other ride-hailing companies have aggressively lobbied other jurisdictions that have attempted to impose new rules and costs on their operations.

“Uber will pull out all the stops in its efforts to prevent any legislative or regulatory reform that infringes on its ability to hire vulnerable people to work irregular on-demand hours for no set wage,” Stanford said in a written statement to The Tyee.

Stanford said governments have successfully regulated Uber to the benefit of drivers. In New York City, for example, drivers get paid time off and have a pay rate set by government that is tied to inflation.

The city also caps the number of drivers working at a given time to protect their incomes, Stanford says.

The government is collecting calls for proposals for the new legislation until Sept. 30. Bains has previously said he hopes to pass a bill as soon as possible.  [Tyee]

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