FILE - Gig workers call for better working conditions in San Francisco on June 18, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

FILE - Gig workers call for better working conditions in San Francisco on June 18, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Inside gig work: Trading flexibility for uncertainty, risk and racism

Drivers say they’ve been injured and assaulted, and worked shifts where they lost out on money

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Kevin Park’s gig economy career as a food courier began as a research project and ended with a broken hand.

Park’s electric unicycle collided with an e-scooter on a late September night at the corner of Smithe and Howe in Vancouver, after the other rider took a left turn too soon. The crash sent Park flying into the intersection.

At first, the Simon Fraser University grad student hoped his hand was only sprained. But it wasn’t. And then he realized he could no longer do his job.

“There’s no insurance for this. There’s nothing I can do. There’s no compensation here,” Park said. “So I’m already like, f—-.”

Park is one of thousands of workers moving food, people and goods in Metro Vancouver through platform-based apps like Uber, SkipTheDishes and DoorDash. The drivers and couriers are not considered employees but independent contractors, without labour protections many take for granted. Data from Lyft suggests the vast majority of their employees in B.C. are racialized people, something Park also believes to be true from his time on the job. They are not guaranteed minimum wage, sick pay or even a profit.

Many are drawn to the work for its flexibility — drivers choose their own hours — and the potential to make good money. They have their own formulas for how to get the most money out of their time, strategies about how to juggle orders between apps and save on gas and long trips.

But the work is full of perils. Park was assaulted once during a shift, an attack he believes was racially motivated. Other drivers have stories of kicks to their car, verbal abuse and shifts where they actually lose money instead of making it.

“In terms of what I do for a short-time side gig, it’s OK,” said Peter, a part-time food courier. “I’m putting mileage on my car. Some nights, no deliveries are coming and I’m wasting my time. I’d say it’s OK as a side gig. But I know people who are doing this full time, and that’s completely nuts.”

British Columbia is considering how and if it might impose regulations on those companies. MLA Adam Walker, who was tasked with creating a precarious work strategy in the province in 2020, held a series of meetings with gig workers across the province last month. Those consultations could lead to new government-based benefits or pension plans for the workers and new regulations on the companies.

But Walker has declined to presuppose what government will do.

Workers interviewed for this story said they enjoyed the convenience and flexibility of the work. Some were hesitant about being regulated as employees, except in specific circumstances. But all agreed the status quo — no minimum wage, no sick pay, no benefits — was not sustainable.

“We’re all just numbers out here,” food courier Harley Rose said. “Skip, Uber, DoorDash — they don’t give a shit about us. They care about getting their orders to the home.”

The curious case of Kevin Park

Park wasn’t supposed to become a first-rate food courier. Originally, his deliveries were part of a research project launched by a professor at Simon Fraser University on the use of devices like e-bikes in the food courier business. They approached Park to make deliveries himself, record observations and distribute flyers to fellow riders seeking participants.

Park liked the work, and he was good at it — so good that he kept it up himself when the research project ended. He meticulously tracked his orders and estimated he made an average of more than $40 an hour, or about $2,000 every week. That’s partially because his electric unicycle requires little upkeep and no gas. But Park also figured out a system — one he’s hesitant to share in full.

“There’s this whole thing about not divulging information,” Park said. Many drivers and couriers treat their formulas like trade secrets. But they have a lot in common: successful couriers often use multiple phones and multiple applications. They screen for larger, better orders with more pay. That often means doing split-second mental math on which orders will pay off and which aren’t worth the gas.

“If it’s not worth at least a dollar per kilometre, I drop it,” said Rose, a rapper and former Vancouver mayoral candidate. Rose likes driving for the apps because it fits around his schedule, which includes caring for a relative in the evenings, and means he doesn’t have to report to a boss looking over his shoulder.

“I’ve started businesses, I’ve shut them down, I’ve failed, I’ve succeeded. To me, this is just another business,” Rose said. He estimated he makes between $20 and $25 an hour on average. But everyone has bad shifts, and some people have a lot of them.

“I lost money last year. My accountant said I did not make money,” Peter said. He asked his real name not be shared. Multiple couriers and drivers interviewed for this story made that request out of concerns their accounts would be deactivated, which can instantly mean their income is cut off.

“If anything happens — my rider gives me one star, or any report, they can suspend us anytime,” said John, who drives an Uber. John says getting that account reactivation can take weeks of haggling with company call centre staff.

“Even to prove yourself, it takes two or three weeks. You’re losing money all those days,” John said. Another Uber driver, Barry, described an incident where a customer kicked the side of his car after refusing to wear a mask — even though that was Uber’s company policy at the time.

Unlike food courier apps, Barry says Uber doesn’t tell drivers what their destination is when they make a pickup, meaning they have no way of knowing if they stand to make $2 or $20. Based on their distance to the restaurant and the price of the food ordered, they have to guess whether it’s worth taking the assignment.

“Any of the smart drivers, their acceptance rate could be as low as 10 per cent,” Barry said.

Those aren’t the only perils of the job. On one delivery downtown, Park said an older man confronted him, angry he had briefly gone onto the sidewalk to deliver an order. Park said the man shoved him towards the street; he managed to brace himself against a tree, but otherwise might have gone directly into traffic.

It was a jarring moment for Park, whose actual university research focuses on the use of public space and who is entitled to it. He doesn’t think it would have happened if he was white.

“I started crying that night. Because it was just a reminder,” Park said.

In Vancouver, sources interviewed for this article said many workers are international students or professionals whose foreign credentials aren’t recognized in Canada.

Companies like Lyft and Uber have often argued most of their drivers do the work part time to supplement other income or their studies. But some studies have suggested many workers are doing it because they have been excluded from other parts of the economy.

“I get the impression some of the people can’t really get a full-time job. They have to do this job because they don’t have the proper paperwork,” Peter said.

And then there’s the issue of injury. More than one driver has stories about an accident; a car door hitting their bike; a robbery or a hard fall that stops them from working. There is no sick pay or leave on Uber, and they are not covered by WorkSafeBC.

When Park broke his hand, he knew he would be OK. But then he thought about workers who wouldn’t be.

“I’m in a financially safe place. But it makes me think about people who aren’t in this position,” Park said.

No one really agrees on what to do about the sector. On one side, the companies have called for the status quo, or for government to fund benefits and pension programs. On the other, some labour groups have asked drivers on such apps to be considered employees outright.

Workers interviewed for this story had a range of views. Most supported stronger benefits and felt the companies should pay for them. Many wanted more transparency around how the app algorithms work and how their pay is determined.

Rose likes the idea of a minimum wage but thinks it would be hard to implement given many drivers use multiple apps, sometimes at the same time. “How do you institute a minimum wage if someone just pops in and works for 45 minutes?” he said.

The result, for now, is a system where thousands of workers doing the same thing are not colleagues but competitors, each trying to squeeze money out of an invisible boss they’ll never see for a company they don’t technically work for.

“Sometimes you anthropomorphize it,” Park said. “You think ‘I’m going to make the algorithm happy today.’”

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