BC’s new protections for gig workers fall short

PV Vancouver Bureau  

On June 12, BC’s NDP government announced that it had finalized a new set of regulations for app-based employers in the province. These regulations are ostensibly meant to improve working conditions for workers of corporations such as Uber, Lyft, Uber Eats, SkiptheDishes and DoorDash, otherwise known as gig workers.

As of September 4, app-based corporations will be legally required to provide at least $20.88 an hour for engaged time. This is an increase of 20 percent above the province-wide minimum wage of $17.40 and is meant to compensate for unpaid downtime between jobs. Workers will also be entitled to 100 percent of their tips, tackling the problem of tip-theft. The regulations also call for more transparency to protect workers against arbitrary suspensions or terminations and will require that workers be informed of the locations and estimated pay associated with a job before they accept it. Finally, gig workers will have access to workers’ compensation through WorkSafeBC.

The labour movement has welcomed these new regulations while acknowledging that they are still insufficient. A statement from Unifor recognized the new laws as a step towards “economic fairness” but added that the best way to protect workers’ rights is by enshrining the ability of workers to organize. “There are serious obstacles when gig workers attempt to form unions,” the statement says, “such as the total lack of transparency about a gig companies’ total local workforce.” Because union votes in the province are triggered when 45 percent of a certifiable unit signs a union card, without the knowledge of the number of workers that includes, union drives are left in the dark about their progress and often stall out.

UFCW expressed similar concerns, stating that “while many of the new regulations are a good start, we will continue to advocate for improvements such as better access to unionization, and a pooled benefit fund funded by all the platforms.”

The BC Federation of Labour applauded greater transparency for pay and destination, but remained critical of how the wage increase would be applied. The higher wage still only covers “engaged time” – meaning the time that a worker is delivering goods or people from point A to point B. This still leaves an estimated 40 percent of a worker’s shift unpaid. Ultimately, gig workers will still be in danger of being paid below the provincial minimum wage.

What should be added is the fact that the $20.88 hourly rate remains well below $25.68, which is considered a living wage in BC. It is true that the higher hourly compensation will be coupled with a per-kilometre mileage payment for car expenses and wear-and-tear, which is common practice for standard jobs that require a vehicle. However, the per-km rate of $0.45 for ride-hailing and $0.35 for delivery services falls well short of the $0.64 that the Canada Revenue Agency estimates it costs to operate a vehicle. Fluctuating gas prices, the need to keep the car running between jobs to stay warm in the winter, and inevitable car repairs all remain as factors that maintain the precarity of app-based work despite these new regulations.

Work precarity as a feature of capitalism in crisis

Precarious employment is not a new problem for the working class. In BC, it takes many forms and is not limited to the gig economy. According to a report from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, most workers in BC have non-standard jobs and 37 percent of workers are engaged in precarious employment.

This employment precarity has its predictable impacts on workers and their families and disproportionately engages racialized, Indigenous and newcomer workers. In BC, a resurgence of gig work, such as app-based ride-hail and food delivery work, has been allowed to operate and grow outside of the basic employment standards and protections, leaving many workers unprotected.

As Marx explained many years ago, the expropriation of the surplus value created by workers is the main profit source for capitalists. Capitalists increase hours of work and reduce wages to maximize the expropriation of that surplus value.

Gig work is of course no exception to the laws of capitalist accumulation. In times of economic crises, capitalists can’t profitably invest in developing the productive forces and instead rely on lowering wages and extending hours of work. App-based ride-hail and delivery services have become a method of doing so, by side-stepping the basic protections and benefits that workers in standard jobs have access to.

At the 2023 Canada Labour Congress (CLC) Convention, we heard numerous calls for an end to precarity at work. We also heard from unions that are already worried about and facing this trend of expanding gig work outside of typical labour protections. On the convention floor, Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) representatives spoke about how advertisers had taken aim at their 60-year-old collective agreement, the “gold standard for gig workers.” The advertisers had locked the workers out under the pretext that their collective agreement was only a contract and not a collective agreement, and based their argument on the fact that these workers were engaged in gig work. ACTRA has since ratified a one-year deal on June 13.

In another example, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) brought a resolution at convention calling for increased labour protections for app-based gig workers. The resolution also called on the CLC to ensure that app-based technologies and the growing gig work trend does not lead to a denigration of working conditions for postal workers. If Canada Post’s notorious management is willing to push postal workers into precarity, then we can conclude that all workers are at risk. That seems to be exactly what was broadcast on the floor of the last CLC convention. Precarious work affects us all.

This growing trend of stripping workers of job protections and benefits is not a capitalist misstep. It is a capitalist victory every time workers get paid less and work longer hours. No amount of tinkering with regulations will permanently crush this harmful trend, especially if the regulations continue to ensure a separation from the rest of the labour movement by barring gig workers from collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining rights were not delivered along with BC’s new regulations, leaving much to be desired. The labour movement has been calling for gig workers to have access to unions, but at least for now the call has gone unheard. We need to do more to ensure that workers in the gig economy enjoy the same rights as everybody else. Most fundamentally would be the right to organize and join and union.

The fight for better wages and fair working hours will continue so long as the capitalist class maintains political and economic power. The outcome of that fight depends on our organization as a class and as a united labour movement, where all workers experiencing precarity are able to fully realize their strength and exercise their right to collective bargaining.

[Photo: Human Rights Watch]

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