Written by Maitland Shaheen, Queens University, Faculty of Law, 1L
I’ve been an occasional freelancer since I was 18. I decided to pursue Political Science in my undergraduate, but I was clinging on to my lifelong dream of journalism. I started picking up two stories a week at my university’s newspaper, interviewing locals and rushing to write my 500-word stories with a two-day turnaround. Having my writing torn apart for the first time (I wasn’t fully aware of Canadian Press style and certainly wasn’t a fan) was heart wrenching, but a worthwhile experience. From there, I became involved with a local music blog, and moved up into interviewing young musicians and covering local shows. I pitched a column to the blog’s editor, and got my first paid writing gig. It wasn’t much but being able to interview the owners of my favourite venue for money was mind blowing.
I eventually shifted out of writing as I approached law school, but I have never had less than two jobs at a time. During my undergrad, that number was usually closer to four or five when counting my volunteer work. I worked retail for money and completed a string of internships, many which have been cut from my resume to keep a two-page maximum. Still, every year I spend January through May furiously checking Indeed and applying to dozens of minimum-wage summer jobs. Despite the anxiety, I love part-time and gig work. I like the flexibility, it keeps me motivated and lets me use parts of my brain that I don’t use in school. Studies show that it’s also the future of our economy.
Protecting the New Canadian Workforce
As of 2016, almost a tenth of Canadian workers described themselves as gig workers, and almost 1 in 5 employed Canadians work part-time at their main or only job. Women are twice as likely to hold part-time positions, and more likely to work multiple jobs amongst temporary workers. Both women and immigrants are more likely to be gig workers than men born in Canada.
The trend makes sense. Short-term and part-time work allows people the flexibility to complete an education, pursue a passion project or contribute to parenting or caretaking duties. However, it also prevents them from accessing the benefits of full-time and permanent work, like insurance, pensions, and a stable salary. Gig work, especially, can easily skirt the rules of minimum wage and workplace protection laws. It also prevents workers (who are usually considered independent contractors) from unionizing.
Last year, a case between Uber and one of their drivers reached the Supreme Court. The driver, David Heller, had attempted to bring a class action lawsuit against Uber for classifying drivers as “independent contractors” rather than “employees”, alleging that using the former allows them to avoid labour laws in Ontario. Uber successfully stayed the motion at the Ontario Superior Court, which was later overturned. At appeal, judges found Uber’s arbitration clause- which forces drivers to travel to Netherlands to pursue legal action- both legally invalid and unconscionable under public policy. Unsurprisingly, Uber appealed to the Supreme Court, and hearings took place in November. The decision that ensues could have a massive impact on gig workers’ ability to pursue legal action against their employers.
In February, the Ontario Labour Relations Board’s first decision on the gig economy found that Foodora workers more closely resemble employees than contractors, making them eligible for unionization. However, Canada’s legal acknowledgement of the gig economy and the needs of workers in it remains lacking. Some other jurisdictions have begun to think more proactively about how to better protect gig workers. For example, in California and France, new laws have provided avenues for gig workers to access labour benefits and seek legal recourse against their employers.
In 2016, gig workers made a median income of $4,303- less than 10% of the national number. While it’s true that many gig workers are only passing by on the way to more permanent employment, this is no excuse for inadequate labour protections. The same excuse is still recycled to diminish the importance of minimum-wage work.
How a Health Crisis Transformed the Canadian Workforce: Taking Notes from Universal Basic Income
A surprising effect of the pandemic has been its ability to transform deeply held assumptions about occupations like cashiers, transit operators, and sanitation workers. In what seemed like a day, social consensus of what should be considered important work was flipped upside down. A less surprising effect of the virus has been that part-time and gig workers remain very narrowly protected under Canadian law.
When the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was introduced, many people were left out. Those who were job hunting when COVID-19 struck were now on their own. Part-timers, gig workers, and the self-employed had to choose between abandoning their work in exchange for help or attempting to live off of starved profits. Within a few weeks, eligibility was expanded to include those making under $1,000 a month.
CERB is an unintended national experiment on universal basic income, and we should approach it as such. The once-radical policy has entered the mainstream- Andrew Yang ran his presidential campaign on it, Elon Musk thinks it’s inevitable (“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better”), and even the Pope agrees with the idea. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is meant to provide a more streamlined approach to social welfare programs. Models range from truly universal (everyone receives payment) to a negative income tax approach (payment is dependent on income, with the richest receiving none and the poorest receiving a maximum).
In 2018, three basic income pilots began in low-income communities across Ontario, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. But one year into the three-year program, the Conservative government cancelled the pilots, saying only that the program was expensive and “clearly not the answer for Ontario families”(CBC). According to a study done with participants, almost 80% of those who received UBI reported improvements to their health, 86% experienced less stress, and 83% reported fewer feelings of depression. Almost half found higher quality living accommodations, almost 60% found it easier to repay their debts, and almost 80% felt more motivated to find a better paying job when supported by UBI. While the Ontario pilots were likely too small to produce national-scale predictions, COVID-19 has forced the country into a state of reflection that we should take advantage of. In a time of serious need, this makeshift basic income can show us how crucial financial security is for Canadians’ wellbeing.
Using COVID-19 as a Possibility for Positive Change
As a progressive nation, Canada’s stance on part-time and gig work is lacking. Provinces should face pressure to take a long, hard look at their labour laws to see what should and shouldn’t have come into the 21st century. With the ability to order food in seconds, legal protection of those who make it possible should have come with it. I hope that this incredibly difficult time will result in a better appreciation of each other- including everyone who continues to hold the Canadian economy together. If we make a continued effort to ensure that every Canadian worker is equal under the law, Canada will be much better prepared for economic crises in the future.
Maitland Shaheen, “A Modern Workforce Policy Calls for Both UBI and Gig Work Protections” Canadian Law of Work Forum (April 24 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/?p=12394