TORONTO — Uber Technologies Inc. wants provinces to force the tech giant and other app-based companies to offer gig workers some benefits through a new proposal, but an advocacy group says the plan will still leave them paid less than minimum wage and with no job security.
Uber's pitch was unveiled Wednesday and is called Flexible Work+. It asks provinces to require app-based gig employers to accrue self-directed benefit funds that can be dispersed to drivers for prescriptions, dental and vision care and provide safety training and tools like reflective vests.
Uber workers are currently classified as independent contractors who are not required to be given benefits or minimum wage like employees would be under provincial laws.
Gig workers and employment lawyers say Uber's new proposal allows the company to continue to avoid treating its couriers and drivers fairly and to keep them in a state of precarity.
"They can lock us into an arrangement that is only for their benefit and that doesn't benefit us at all," said Brice Sopher, an UberEats worker in Toronto and representative for Gig Workers United, an advocacy group for delivery workers in Canada.
"(The proposal) doesn't address any of the real issues that workers have been talking about."
Sopher's group has long been advocating for app-based companies like Uber to offer a living wage, sick pay and more stability to workers.
Uber has fought those requests by arguing that workers want flexibility to choose when, where and how often they work and don't want to be tied to formal schedules that could come with traditional employment.
The company has been trying to further solidify that position across the globe in recent months. It spent millions last year to convince Californians to vote in favour of Proposition 22, which allowed them to continue to classify couriers and drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.
Sopher and Joshua Mandryk, a labour lawyer at Goldblatt Partners in Toronto, see the Canadian proposal as a continuation of Proposition 22, which passed in November's election despite union opposition.
"Canadians should not be fooled," said Mandryk.
"Uber has framed this proposal as a magnanimous bestowing of benefits when it really appears to be about carving their drivers out of basic employment standards protections like the minimum wage."
Samara Belitzky, a lawyer at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, said that if Uber workers were considered employees it would have to offer minimum wage, vacation pay and protected, parental and medical leave. Workers would be able to access compensation in the event of workplace injuries and would get unemployment benefits, she added.
"Uber realizes that the way … they're misclassifying drivers as contractors when they're really employees is not necessarily working out, and so they are now spending the time to get the government involved to change the law so that they can kind of have their cake and eat it too," said Belitzky, whose firm is currently pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Uber.
When Uber unveiled its proposal, the company's senior vice-president of global rides and platform pushed back on views like Belitzky's.
"Our view is our current employment system is outdated, unfair and somewhat inflexible and some workers get benefits and protections and others don't," Andrew MacDonald told The Canadian Press.
"We feel that COVID has exposed some of those fundamental flaws and think this is a good opportunity for change."
Uber is pursuing the model, he said, rather than existing ones because an October survey of more than 600 Uber couriers and drivers in Canada showed 65 per cent favoured Flexible Work+. Roughly 16 per cent still like the current independent contractor model and 18 per cent wanted to be classified as employees with benefits.
MacDonald believes workers will like Uber's idea to offer drivers and couriers in the country access to funds that they can spend on prescriptions, dental, or vision care and potentially even RRSPs or tuition.
Uber envisions drivers and couriers getting to decide how to use the money, which could be allocated based on hours worked, and it would also look at sending drivers and couriers equipment like safety vests or phone mounts.
UberEats courier Spencer Thompson sees the pitch as "a step in the right direction," but wishes it addressed wages. He claims pay changes Uber made last summer resulted in some courier's earnings dropping to $3.99 from $10 per trip before tips during the last year.
"A lot of the drivers, especially more in like the suburbs, would probably want some protections like minimum wage and other employee type benefits," said Thompson, who has debated quitting the app.
Uber's pitch includes committing to more transparency around pay and investing more in drivers, but the company wants regulatory changes to be widespread and affect app-based competitors too.
Companies including Lyft and DoorDash said in emails that they support stronger safety measures and benefits for workers, but did not directly comment on Uber's pitch.
Government officials were just receiving Uber's proposal Wednesday, but Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said he was looking forward to tackling the future of work.
A statement from the office of Manitoba Finance Minister Finance Scott Fielding said the province would need more time to evaluate the proposal before weighing in, but said "nothing prevents a company from going above legislated workplace safety and health requirements for its contracted workers."
— with files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg and Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press