The struggle for decent working conditions within gig work – and particularly low-wage, precarious gig work – is very much alive.

The federal government published a consultation request in March 2021, asking gig workers to share their thoughts and experiences. In a nutshell, the ministry is seeking input to update federal labour regulations to reflect the realities of the eight per cent of the Canadian population doing gig work at the time of the 2016 census. We are also seeing provincial governments lead consultations to shape the future of work, although these lack crucial worker representation. These consultations are taking place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic; while gig-worker labour is deemed “essential,” gig workers have been treated as if they are entirely disposable – personally bearing the brunt of health and safety risks.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have also seen murmurs of a paradigm shift. We are seeing the movement for worker rights gain momentum – quietly and steadily. Forms of collective action have emerged in the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States – to name a few – that have sought to shine a light on the difficult realities of gig workers, who are caught in a regulatory quagmire between being a self-employed sole proprietor and being an employee. Workers, courts and governments are growing more attuned to the often-exploitative nature of precarious gig work. New policies are being introduced by gig companies themselves.

So, how can these policies from around the world inform Canada’s own work in designing policies that will protect and improve conditions for gig workers, specifically those employed through digital labour platforms like Uber and the like?

We need to first understand the journey and life experiences that would lead anyone to choose forms of precarious gig work. In Canada, we need a regional approach that can fully assess the impact and hold of individual companies that seek to operate in our cities and communities.

The case of categorical ambiguity

Perhaps one of the challenges of designing thorough policy in this space is the notion of “categorical ambiguity.” Gig workers are typically all grouped together, and their experiences are thought to follow the same trajectory, without an understanding of their unique journeys.

It is vitally important to understand the relationship between why people might be gig working and where they want to be. While administrative data can show us glimpses of who is engaging in gig work, we still lack information about the reasons that workers move in or out of such work. As well, there is a danger in not being able to keep up with the speed of transitions facilitated by the digital labour platforms. Migrants who face barriers to gainful employment are disproportionately represented in the gig work population. Their overqualifications result in underemployment that often hinders their long-term labour market integration. In addition, migrants face structural and chronic barriers to upward career progression and are unable to achieve career goals in their new country.

It would be a mistake to think of gig workers as only the visible ones like couriers and drivers. The data shows that invisible gig work, such as domestic or care work, which is often done by women, is frequently more common. We lack longitudinal data in this area to better understand if and how gig work has changed over time. We also need more information on how these platforms have impacted the lives of people who have engaged in precarious gig work before and after the introduction of digital platforms.

A second category our labour policies must address is the case of “categorical ambiguity” and define what is different about gig work. A lack of clarity has resulted in chaos and confusion among workers. Recent research looked at the case of Uber’s entry into Toronto in 2014. Uber drivers and taxi drivers were doing essentially the same work, yet there suddenly emerged two different categories of workers. Categorical ambiguity resulted in workers being pitted against each other, and this perceived difference between the two was ultimately codified in the municipal bylaws of the City of Toronto. This shows how ambiguous – and arguably illusory – distinctions can have a profound impact on how we organize and perceive work, and how these differences – with consequences for the lives of drivers – can become embedded into legal and social infrastructure.

Designing and modernizing our employment policies for gig workers is a momentous task, but it is more crucial than ever that we do it well, factoring into account the different experiences of those who choose to enter this work. COVID-19 led to enormous job losses, and the effect on our labour market has implications for workers’ long-term social security. This is a “don’t design a policy about us without us” situation. Policy-makers need gig workers and organizations that work closely with them at the forefront of policy analysis and decisions made at the municipal, provincial, territorial or federal level.

How can we leverage gig work as a pathway toward emancipation and empowerment rather than oppression? In Canada, we need to truly understand how to design policies that make sense for our changing demographics. We must ensure that opportunities in the gig economy come without compromising the qualities that matter most: decent working conditions, stable employment and human rights, as well as personal well-being now and throughout our working lives.

Given the collective nature of gig workers’ grievances and their shared experiences of exploitation, wins for gig workers have implications beyond the cities and countries where they unfold. California’s Prop 22 decision in late 2020, for instance, will have lessons for Canada. That decision was initially seen as defeat for gig workers but was recently struck down and ruled unconstitutional.

How can Canada take such lessons like that one and distill them down to regional contexts that make sense for this country? Municipal laws and employment regulations can drastically impact how certain forms of gig work are perceived. Different jurisdictions have a responsibility to weigh in on the operations of gig companies, holding them responsible for their treatment of workers who arguably are not wholly self-employed.

Designing a just economy collectively will take time, true and meaningful engagement with workers and rich, rigorous data collection. We need a steady and diligent (yet urgent) policy approach to address the vulnerabilities of gig workers.

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Laura Lam
Laura Lam is a PhD student at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto and a researcher with the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration. Her research focuses on migration and precarious employment.
Kam Phung
Kam Phung is a PhD candidate in organization studies and a Vanier scholar at the Schulich School of Business, York University, where he researches the relationship between business and society.

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