Foodora, Uber Eats and DoorDash are great…for consumers

Foodora, Uber Eats and DoorDash are great…for consumers

Less so if you work for them. A few thoughts on the fight to unionize the food couriers

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford

A couple of times a month, when my husband and I are feeling too tired to cook, we use Foodora to order in from Flock, the popular mini chain of restaurants famous for their rotisserie chicken and intricate salads. About half an hour later, we’re eating delicious, roasted-to-perfection chicken with chimichurri, a colourful kale and quinoa salad and a side of sweet potato fries. It’s a recipe that makes everyone in our household happy.

Ordering in used to be a hit-and-miss proposition. For years, I got dumplings from a place on Bloor that only delivered if the owner’s son was in and happened to have his car. Now, eating restaurant-quality food at home is an effortless experience: I place my order online and track the delivery. If our 13-year-old bounds down the stairs and asks us when we’re having dinner, I can give him a precise answer.

But the gains for consumers come at a cost. To serve everyone’s meal delivery needs, platoons of bike couriers—for Foodora, DoorDash, Uber Eats and SkipTheDishes—risk their lives racing through Toronto’s notoriously dangerous streets.

Jason McBride, one of Toronto Life’s great feature writers, wanted to know what it felt like to deliver food all day on a bike. The result is “The Secret Life of Food Couriers,” a revealing chronicle of his delivery adventures, with inside accounts from veteran delivery people and insights into how it all works.

Many of the delivery people he spoke to love their work. Primarily, they value the freedom and flexibility of creating their own work schedule. They also like working outdoors and staying fit. But others complain about the lack of benefits and worker protections, the unpredictable income and the overall precariousness of their livelihoods.

This past summer, a bunch of Foodora workers, calling themselves Foodsters United, teamed up with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers to launch a union drive. They hope that together they’ll have the bargaining power they need to demand better labour conditions. I’m afraid they face a monumentally difficult fight. For one thing, the provincial rules for unionizing are stuck in the manufacturing age: to form a union, organizers need 40 per cent of the workforce to vote in favour. With a disjointed, decentralized, on-again-off-again crew of cyclists and drivers, how do you even identify the size of the workforce to calculate that 40 per cent?

Iván Ostos, who started as a Foodora delivery guy in 2016, is trying to unionize his fellow couriers

More significantly, Foodora claims its couriers aren’t employees at all, instead classifying them as independent contractors, which exempts the company from having to cover vacation time, sick leave, dental care or physio, say, when a cyclist sprains an ankle and can’t ride. Meanwhile, Foodora’s corporate staff, headquartered in Germany, enjoy regular salaries and normal white-collar benefits.

Foodora couriers are not alone in this fight, of course. Gig-economy workers all over the world are pushing back against the winner-takes-all model of Silicon Valley capitalism. Uber drivers in Ontario launched a $200-million class-action lawsuit in 2017 demanding they be treated as employees, with all the benefits and regulations afforded by the Employment Standards Act.

I wish them luck. Uber, Foodora and DoorDash workers may not be employees in the strict, technical definition of the word, but they drive their company’s economic engine and deserve all the protections that labourers have had since the industrial revolution. Until then, for heaven’s sake, tip big.

Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.