The secret life of food couriers


The delivery people who hustle for Uber Eats, Foodora and DoorDash have traded job stability for the flexibility of the gig economy. Every day, they risk their lives to deliver your Libretto pizza or Flock salad. They’re the workforce of the future

By Jason McBride| Photography by Luis Mora
| September 25, 2019

When Iván Ostos started as a Foodora bike courier in 2016, he planned to work for the company for just a few months. He was studying music at Humber and thought it would be a fun summer job. And it was—flexible schedule, low stress, low commitment. He had no real boss. He got to work outside. The money wasn’t too bad, either; most shifts, he made about $18 an hour, almost seven dollars more than the minimum wage at the time. But three months became six months, then six months became a year. He dropped out of Humber and became a full-time Foodster, the company’s term for its couriers. The job became less fun. Food delivery apps, which were a relative novelty when Ostos first started, were suddenly wildly popular. Other companies had moved in or aggressively expanded—Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes, DoorDash—and couriers swarmed the streets. Ostos’ wages took a nosedive. He started a second delivery gig, with Uber Eats, and sandwiched those shifts between his shifts with Foodora. He kept riding.

A year ago, while on a Foodora delivery, Ostos was in the bike lane on Queens Quay when he T-boned another cyclist who had swerved in front of him. As they both fell to the pavement, Ostos’ first thought was, “Is the other guy okay?” He was. His second thought was, “Is the food okay?” It was. But Ostos wasn’t okay—he had shattered his elbow. In excruciating pain, as he awaited an ambulance, he contacted Foodora and told them what had happened. Could he finish delivering the order, they asked? Even in his pain, Ostos was shocked. “I told them I couldn’t do that,” he says. “It made me pretty mad. It was like I wasn’t even a person.” A clerk from a nearby bike store waited with Ostos until the ambulance arrived and took him to Mount Sinai, where he had surgery the next day. At the time, Foodora was the only major food delivery app registered with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and the company recommended that Ostos report his injury and apply for worker’s compensation. He received $210 a week for four months, until he was able to get back on the road.

The secret life of food couriers
Iván Ostos, who started as a Foodora delivery guy in 2016, is trying to unionize his fellow couriers

As far as Foodora was concerned, though, it didn’t really matter if he came back at all. The gig economy has a never-ending supply of workers like Ostos, who’ve exchanged security for flexibility, managers for the anonymous omnipotence of the algorithm, a steady paycheque for an income contingent on hustle and luck. The jobs that are part of this new economy are many and various: Uber driver, Lyft driver, furniture mover, Airbnb host, Instagram influencer, house cleaner, Amazon delivery person, freelance marketer, freelance web designer, freelance anything. This is the world we live in now, where everything is available in an instant, but ownership is becoming obsolete. Where there’s endless choice but limited freedom. Where rapacious technology is good at creating markets for services we didn’t know we needed, and solutions for problems that don’t really exist. The rise of these on-demand apps has been a source of increasingly vertiginous income inequality—witness the chasm between Jeff Bezos and the average Amazon warehouse worker, or between Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and the average Uber driver.

Many are willing participants in the gig economy. Others are less so, forced into it by declining job creation, stagnant wages and a manufacturing sector that’s all but vanished. Ostos is 23, but many of his fellow couriers are much older, some in their 60s and 70s. Some are migrant workers or international students on visas that only allow them to work 20 hours a week off-campus. Others simply have limited education and skills. The size of this workforce is difficult to gauge, but it’s growing. Diane Mulcahy’s 2016 book, The Gig Economy, cites studies showing that all net employment growth in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015 occurred in “alternative work arrangements,” not full-time jobs. A 2018 Forbes article estimated that approximately 57 million American workers are now part of the gig economy. According to Statistics Canada, one in eight workers, or just over two million Canadians, held a temporary job in 2018. Food app companies won’t reveal the number of people they employ in Canada because they don’t consider their couriers to be employees—they think of them as independent contractors—but the number of customers using their services has exploded. This past May, use of the apps hit record levels, with 34 per cent of Ontarians reporting they’d used them at least once. “This is the future of labour,” Ostos says. “This industry is not going away.”

Takeout has been around, in some form or another, for centuries. But for most of my lifetime, there were really only two types of cuisine that people cooked elsewhere then delivered to your door: Chinese food and pizza. That changed with the first dot-com boom. Pizza Hut supposedly sold its first pie online in 1994, and soon thereafter, regional online services began to pop up across the U.S., enabling all kinds of restaurants to put their menus online, while third-party companies, like Cuisine Express, delivered from whoever opted in. In 1999, a group of lawyers, fed up with ordering from outdated paper menus, launched Seamless. Five years later, a new rival called Grubhub debuted. As data speeds and bandwidth improved, consumer activity migrated to cellphones. By 2005, everyone was buying everything on Amazon. By 2007, Netflix had introduced streaming, and by 2009, people were using their phones to order car rides on Uber. The elements these platforms introduced—abundant choice, easy ordering, an unregulated labour force—converged to make ordering lunch on your phone a no-brainer.

Venture capital followed. In 2012, Grubhub unveiled in-restaurant technology that streamlined order taking. A year later, it merged with Seamless to become one of the largest takeout companies in the U.S., available in more than 500 cities and 20,000 restaurants. Uber Eats, launched in Toronto in 2015, grew with characteristic speed; its enormous built-in network of drivers gave it an instant advantage over its competition. The San Francisco start-up DoorDash arrived the same year. Toronto, with its long winters and vibrant culinary scene, was a hospitable place for the apps.

Apparently, you can’t have too many cooks in this particular kitchen. I’ve never been a big user of these apps myself—I like to cook, and I’m cheap. But many, many people seem to like having their food made by someone else and brought to their home or workplace. And why not? It’s convenient and, at first anyway, a little thrilling. It’s room service without the hotel stay, but better than that because you can order pretty much any food you want from an almost endless array of kitchens. Even if the quality isn’t quite what you can get at a restaurant—orders can arrive tepid or jostled by the journey or just plain wrong—well, a movie on Netflix isn’t the same as a movie at the Varsity, but it can still be a satisfying experience. “We’re spending more time than ever at home,” says Howard Migdal, a managing director at SkipTheDishes. “We didn’t have to build consumer demand, it was already there.”

And indeed, that consumer demand is everywhere. Restaurants Canada, the food service industry association, said that food delivery grew by 44 per cent last year, with 85 per cent of all quick-service restaurants now using the apps. And almost all restaurants that use the apps juggle a few of them at the same time. The app companies love to tout how many restaurants this technology makes available to the consumer. There are more than 6,100 restaurants in the GTA on SkipTheDishes, for example, and the app has exclusive relationships with, among others, Wendy’s, Earls and Jack Astor’s. In Ottawa, the LCBO recently contracted Foodora to deliver same-day, door-to-door booze, a program that will likely soon spread to other parts of the province. DoorDash uses a somewhat different, arguably more parasitic, system than others. While it too has partnerships with restaurants, it also offers to pick up from restaurants that it does not partner with, providing couriers with a pre-paid credit card—a Red Card—that allows them to place orders and pay as if they were regular customers. (This has led to blowback from some restaurants who don’t want to be listed on the apps.)

The secret life of food couriers

John Marcucci, 31

Works for: Foodora and DoorDash Kilometres clocked: 40,000 Orders delivered: 10,000


“I’ve been an urban cyclist my whole life, so when I saw the Foodora backpacks pop up in my neighbourhood, I knew I wanted to try it. I love working out, and I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me to do that. I’m also doing my master’s in counselling right now, so a regular nine-to-five wouldn’t work for me. One of the perks of the job is that I get to control my schedule. But the lack of fair wages is a big drawback, which is one of the reasons why Foodora couriers are trying to unionize. When I bike, I assume every car is going to hit me—I’m always looking for escape routes. After I finish my master’s, I hope to open my own private therapy business.”

The app companies are fond of claiming they’ve been a boon to restaurants. In their view, the apps introduce new places to eat and different kinds of cuisine to people who otherwise might not try them. They offer delivery services to restaurants that otherwise couldn’t afford or manage the logistics of delivery. And, as with all contemporary digital services, they gather valuable information about customers that they can theoretically pass on to their clients. “We have dedicated local account managers and partner care associates who share a number of data points (average basket size, average cooking time, number of sessions, etc.) with restaurant partners, whether they’re small business owners or chains,” says Sadie Weinstein, a Foodora spokesperson.

Cory Vitiello, co-founder and co-owner of the Flock franchise, a fast-casual purveyor of rotisserie chicken and elaborate salads, was one of Uber Eats’s first clients when it launched in the spring of 2015. “They were an important partner for us,” he says. “They were able to get our brand and product in front of far more people than we could through our own channels.” That exposure comes at a cost: Uber Eats takes up to 30 per cent on all deliveries; SkipTheDishes and Foodora charge similar fees. (According to some people I spoke to, many restaurants inflate their prices on app-delivered food to offset the cut the apps take, something the apps don’t encourage.) Today, Vitiello estimates that about 35 per cent of Flock’s sales are processed through Uber Eats, Foodora or the food pickup app Ritual. “It gives smaller operators a wider footprint,” Vitiello says. “You don’t need to be on the best corner, on the best street, in the biggest city in Canada. Food speaks for itself on Uber Eats. You’re not being wowed by decor or ambiance. It’s all about the food.”

Other restaurateurs, particularly those with sit-down dining rooms and service staff, are less enthusiastic about the apps. “They’re kind of a necessary evil,” says Max Rimaldi, co-owner of the Pizzeria Libretto chain, as well as Bar Isabel and Rosalinda. For Rimaldi, the apps mean fewer customers in his restaurants, but also, more importantly, that he has no control over his food’s quality and appearance once it leaves the kitchen. The couriers are better now, he says, but when Libretto first started using them, he was appalled to see a courier slide a pizza into his bag sideways. At this point, though, Rimaldi feels he has no choice but to keep using the apps or build his own in-house delivery system, an effort that is likely much more trouble than it’s worth. “These apps are giving people what they want,” Rimaldi says, “which is the ability to be freaking lazy, cocooning, watching Netflix and having their favourite food at home. Which is great, but that doesn’t do anything for guys like me.”

To meet the demand, virtual kitchens, often called ghost kitchens, have popped up all over the world, hidden behind unbranded storefronts, churning out all kinds of food for the ravenous delivery market. They earn all the app-generated revenue with none of the hassles of running a restaurant: no front-of-house staff, no dining room to maintain, less overhead, no demanding face-to-face customers. Grubhub invested a million dollars in Green Summit Group, which operates nine virtual restaurants out of a single location. Uber’s controversial ex-CEO Travis Kalanick has taken this concept and blown it up—his L.A.-based CloudKitchens allows people to set up low-budget, fully equipped, commercial “smart kitchens,” complete with proprietary ordering software, in underutilized real estate that Kalanick has purchased through a holding company called City Storage Systems. Meanwhile, Uber has cut out the middleman by opening and operating its own ghost kitchens in Paris. Last year, they bought Ando, a delivery-only restaurant created by Momofuku’s David Chang. In Toronto, there’s the 6IX Food Hall in the Entertainment District, which produces everything from pizza to poutine, and Jackpot Brandz in East York, with 13 virtual restaurants including Jojo’s Wings and Pepe’s Perogies.

The upsides of ghost kitchens are obvious, but the downsides are more abstract. A big part of the pleasure of city life is going out—to parks and galleries and concerts, but also to markets, bookstores, bars and, yes, restaurants. And a big part of running a restaurant is providing a pleasurable, immersive and memorable experience. Taken to its logical, albeit hyperbolic, extreme, the dystopia that a growing food delivery culture portends is one where most restaurants are little more than catering services, where people rarely leave their homes, where they don’t want to or even know how to cook, where our streetscapes become little more than homogenous strips of chain drugstores, banks and supermarkets. “I would probably quit the industry if I had to operate a ghost kitchen,” Vitiello says. “I’m in it for people and for hospitality. Uber’s a great tool to use in addition to our primary business, but I want to see people walking out of the restaurant with smiling faces, fully satiated, and happy about how they just spent their money.”

The secret life of food couriers

Elizabeth Aber, 28

Works for: Uber Eats Kilometres clocked: 8,700 Orders delivered: 418


“In 2016, a friend recommended I try delivering for Uber Eats. After the first few shifts, I was impressed. The money was good. I generally make about $7 per delivery, or around $18 per hour. For half the year, I live in Peru, working at retreats that offer sound healing or plant medicines. What other job allows you to leave for half the year then come back? Sometimes, I don’t feel comfortable going to certain areas at night, but I rarely say no to deliveries. I try to stay safe on the road by wearing lots of reflective gear. My helmet is also white. I wear braces on my knees because you never know what might happen when you’re biking that much. I’m getting tired of the job, though. It’s physically demanding work and drains my energy. I wish I didn’t have to rely on Uber Eats to pay rent. I hope this is my last year doing it full time.”

In early June, I decided to find out what the life of a food delivery courier is like. In my early 20s, when I was still in school, I spent summers as a tree planter and as a waiter at a Japanese restaurant. Food delivery, I figured, would be more or less like doing both jobs at the same time: the piecework, the physical exertion, the tedium. My first choice of company was Foodora—I look good in pink—but it wasn’t hiring. Too many people want to work when the weather is good, and if Foodora floods the streets with new couriers, the reasoning is, their existing couriers won’t make enough money and will quit. I tried SkipTheDishes, but they were only hiring car drivers in my part of town. Then I saw a DoorDash ad during the NBA playoffs. I applied.

“Applied” is an overstatement. All I did to get the job was download the “Dasher” app—DoorDash refers to its couriers as Dashers—submit to a background check and show up for a one-hour orientation session. Two other applicants—a couple of guys in their mid-to-late 20s—attended the orientation with me. There was no interview, nobody asking us why we wanted the job. No one cared why we wanted the job. No one cared if we wanted the job. And according to DoorDash, it didn’t even count as a job, since they didn’t think of us as employees. Almost everything was done virtually. On a tablet, I signed a contract releasing DoorDash from any kind of legal obligation (and agreeing not to participate in any class-action lawsuit against the company). The bored, brisk staffers who conducted the orientation walked us through the app via a video slide presentation. Their unmarked office was a windowless cell the width of a desk in a co-working space in Liberty Village. It was furnished largely with cardboard boxes containing DoorDash-branded thermal and catering bags. Our first bag was free; additional ones would cost us $4. The enormous biker bags—the square insulated backpacks now ubiquitous on city streets—were $40, but the company was temporarily out of them. We were told to use our own backpacks: you pop the thermal bag in and off you go. Our training, as bike couriers, was similarly perfunctory. “Just try to ride carefully.”

For every DoorDash order, the app immediately tells the courier four things: where the restaurant is relative to the Dasher’s current location; where the drop-off is relative to the restaurant; how quickly the courier needs to get to the restaurant to pick the food up; and how much the courier will be paid for the delivery. The delivery fee varies, depending on size and distance travelled from the restaurant. For each order, DoorDash takes a cut as high as 30 per cent. Controversially, the company used tips to subsidize what it paid its couriers until very recently. If a delivery paid $5, say, and the customer didn’t tip, DoorDash paid you the entire amount. But if the customer tipped $2, DoorDash only paid you $3. You didn’t get that toonie on top of your guaranteed $5 fee. But in late August, DoorDash changed this system: tips were no longer rolled into payment.

My first shift was the next day, lunchtime, downtown. A pre-booked shift is usually three hours, but Dashers can dash at any time and work for as long as they wish. Worried that soup or beverages would spill if they were in my backpack, I borrowed my wife’s bike. It has lousy brakes and a bum bell, but it has a basket that I could use to keep my thermal bag upright. I travelled to Queen and Shaw to await my first order. Fifteen minutes into the shift, and after I’d wandered closer to the order “hot spots” the app recommended, it finally came—ping!

I had 60 seconds to accept or decline my first order. I accepted immediately and raced to a noodle place in Chinatown. I didn’t require the GPS that’s embedded in the app, or the routes it prescribed, but at first I followed it anyway, even as it sent me through perilous construction zones. As anyone who biked, drove or walked this summer knows, the entire city was pretty much one big perilous construction zone.

I arrived at the restaurant soaked in sweat, quads burning. The food wasn’t there. The restaurant had no record of the order. I texted the customer. She was confused, but didn’t want to re-order in case it got lost again. She cancelled. Now a half-hour into my first shift, I had made exactly zero dollars. I got back on my bike and waited for another ping. It came seconds later, for an order at Bay and Dundas. I accepted again. This time the order was ready, and I delivered it to a U of T dorm without incident. From the first restaurant to the second and then up to U of T was about a four-kilometre trip that took, not including the time I waited for the order to be ready, about 15 minutes. I received $8.52 for the delivery. Beyond the large cut the company received from the restaurant, it’s hard to say how much more DoorDash itself received for that particular order—normally such an order would command a $1.99 fee, but like ride-hailing companies that offer discounts to undercut their competitors, the apps frequently waive those fees, eating the cost in a long-term bid for a larger, loyal customer base.

Because there are so many couriers out there, and because kitchens are sometimes slower than the couriers, there can be long moments when you’re just drifting around on your bike waiting for an order to come in or standing at the front of a restaurant until the food is finished and boxed up. DoorDash and Uber Eats thus offer their couriers financial incentives called multipliers or boosts. When the weather is bad, say, or at peak demand, couriers can get a bit more per delivery. I would receive regular texts, often late at night or early in the morning, offering me an extra dollar or two per delivery, sometimes even an extra five dollars, if I delivered during certain periods and at certain speeds. (Frustratingly, however, the app would sometimes conk out just as I had completed the delivery within the allotted time, and I’d lose out on the peak pay.) Foodora, in contrast, offers its couriers a flat $4.50 per order, plus a dollar for every kilometre between the restaurant and the customer (couriers keep all tips). Foodora has experimented with boosts, but prefers a system of regimented shifts that limit the number of couriers on the road and, ideally, ensure its couriers are guaranteed a consistent volume of orders. An algorithm calculates how many couriers are needed, based on the weather, past ordering patterns and other variables. Then, the top 30 per cent of couriers—the most active and consistent—are able to sign up for shifts an hour before everyone else.

The secret life of food couriers

Frances Duodu, 23

Works for: Uber Eats Orders delivered: 1,826

“Once I tried delivering food, I was hooked. On average, I make $25 per hour. In the winter, I make around $30. I can work anywhere, whenever I want. When I’m in Toronto, or if I’m visiting Montreal, I can take my work with me. I’ve made a ton of friends—all the couriers are my friends. Sometimes we have lunch at Trinity Bellwoods. But one thing I hate is how some restaurants don’t care about quality. McDonald’s, for example, doesn’t package food and drinks securely. It would be a lot easier if I was just delivering envelopes or packages. The job can also be dangerous: a taxi hit me in front of Union Station. Thankfully, he was nice and he called an ambulance. I had a tear in my shoulder and I couldn’t ride for a month. Eventually, I want to become a filmmaker. I’m making some money on film projects now, but it’s not enough. I’ll probably be a courier for Uber Eats for the next seven years at least.”

On my first shift, I spent a lot of time going back and forth from the Chipotle near Yonge-Dundas Square, but lost another order (and the entire fee) when I arrived at the restaurant to find it was too large for my basket. At 2 p.m., I knocked off. In three hours of work, I had completed five orders and made just under $40. As far as Dashers go, I was perhaps more of a Prancer. I blew a quarter of my earnings on lunch at A&W.

But I was delighted at how nice restaurant staff could be. One server offered me a cold glass of water as I waited. An elderly woman at a pho place struck up a conversation as she assembled place settings. The manager of a glum basement Indian joint told me I’d make more money if I was delivering by car, especially if I was working for Uber Eats. No one minded if I used their bathroom. I soon learned that in the food service caste system, couriers rank somewhere between fast food workers and busers, yet I still felt a surprising sense of camaraderie. I was less thrilled to discover that most of the people ordering the food were young, seemingly able-bodied, healthy and childless, willing to pay delivery fees that sometimes added 10 bucks to the cost of their lunch, and unwilling to walk 10 minutes to pick it up. Some people placed orders from restaurants literally a block from their homes. My customers lived almost exclusively in condos, and when I arrived at their units, very often I barely even saw them, just their hands emerging from barely opened doors like the hands of a zombie emerging from a coffin in a horror film. Other couriers told me that the more of a shut-in someone appeared to be, the better they tipped.

Then there was the waste. Some food delivery companies like to suggest that delivery is greener than other options, at least if your delivery arrives by bike. But no, no it’s not. Just about every delivery I made seemed a matryoshka doll of paper and plastic, double-and-tripled-bagged to prevent spillage. Some customers, apparently living in condos lacking basic kitchen amenities, reminded the restaurant to send cutlery and napkins.

Soon into my first shift, I could sense a bolus of low-grade resentment and misanthropy form in me. I didn’t like it, but it was a feeling I remembered well from the service and retail jobs of my youth. Here, though, those emotions were also supplemented by somewhat more oppressive feeling of invisibility. As a food delivery courier, your name might accompany the order details, but you are still effectively a faceless, personality-free automaton. From the customer’s perspective, the whole transaction is virtual and frictionless, with no human presence, not even a voice, until the very last minute when the food is handed off. It’s no stretch at all to imagine the day, very soon, when the human element is entirely eliminated, when food delivery is fully automated and your pad Thai or Popeyes is brought to your home by a resentment-free, indefatigable robot who expects no tip at all.

Riding a bike in downtown Toronto is treacherous. On a daily basis, you contend with aggressive drivers, inclement weather, an ever-expanding network of potholes, EarPod-wearing pedestrians and sociopathic e-bikers who dart around you in deadly silence. When your job requires you to ride a bike in downtown Toronto for three, eight, even 12 hours a day, these obstacles are magnified to a potentially lethal degree. I was lucky: in my handful of shifts, I was only nearly hit by passing cars twice. I have been doored many times in the past, but I somehow managed to avoid it while delivering food. But I have a torn meniscus in my right knee, and by the end of my third shift, with rain threatening again, my knee had swelled significantly enough that I cut the day short and meekly pedalled home to ice it.

This wasn’t DoorDash’s fault, of course, or the gig economy’s, necessarily. Maybe being a Dasher is just a young person’s game. I talked to another courier, 19-year-old Jacob Rothery, who loves the job. He’s a second-year McGill student and spent the summer working as an Uber Eats bike courier. An avid cyclist, he logged 417 trips in his first five weeks on the job and estimates that he averaged about $31 an hour over two three-hour shifts a day. He works in all weather, happy when it rains because there’s less competition. “It’s a grind,” he says, but he feels that there was nothing too awful about the work. “If people want to stay inside and have their food ordered for a ridiculous price, they should be able to do that.” He doesn’t feel any resentment. He doesn’t feel exploited.

But others do, often those who don’t have as many options as Rothery. Iván Ostos, the Foodora courier with the shattered elbow, recalled one shift when he was stuck at an east-end Indian restaurant, waiting for food, watching the clock tick. A couple of other Foodsters he didn’t know were also there, waiting on their own orders. They started grumbling about their work, the lack of labour rights, the non-existent benefits. Like just about every gig-economy company, Foodora’s success was built on the backs of a desperate labour force. One of the couriers mused about starting a food couriers’ union, something that has never been successfully done anywhere in Canada. Another courier agreed, but thought it was too onerous a task. How would you even get in touch with all the Foodsters? How would you convince them to join? Couriers tend to congregate around the thimble sculpture at Richmond and Spadina, but that’s only because the corner is thick with restaurants and condos. Some of the Uber Eats couriers have a Facebook group. Some hang out in Trinity Bellwoods, drinking beers after dark. But unlike bike messengers, who have long styled themselves as a cadre of scrappy, hard-charging urban pirates, the food couriers—solitary, atomized, often transient—have little discernible community. Without a community, how do you develop solidarity? How do you organize?

The secret life of food couriers


Allison Janzen, 32

Works for: Uber Eats and Foodora Kilometres clocked: 6,000 Orders delivered: 650

“I thought delivering for Uber Eats would be a great way to meet people and discover new streets in Toronto. I love being able to bike every day and make money doing it. In the winter, I can make up to $45 an hour. But it’s not consistent. And as a queer woman, I’m concerned about safety. Working nights is also a problem. At some restaurants, like the Burger’s Priest on Queen West, you have to pick up food from a back entrance through an alleyway. I have male friends who don’t even want to go down that alleyway. I’ve also been doored multiple times, and my bike has been totalled by a taxi. I’ve had chronic pains, and general wear and tear from biking so much, but my osteopath has helped me a lot. Osteopathy has been so helpful to me that I’m starting a five-year osteopathy program this year.”

Some other Foodster friends started having similar ideas and approached a bunch of unions. Only CUPW, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, was interested. It helped the couriers launch Foodsters United, a campaign site, in early May. An awareness-raising march to Nathan Phillips Square followed that day. The couriers’ demands were simple: fair compensation, better workplace safety, and benefits. “Benefits are the number-one thing for me,” Ostos says. “The people in the Foodora offices get benefits. They get paid sick days, paid vacations, dental, physio. But the guys working 12 hours a day on our bikes? The guys on the dangerous side of the industry? They don’t get massage therapy or psychological help?”

I met Ostos in late May at Saigon Lotus, a vegan Vietnamese place in Kensington Market that he often delivers for. He’s small and lithe, and wears a clipped moustache and retro cycling cap. He was still working for Foodora and Uber Eats, but had become a volunteer spokesperson for the union drive, and the role was taking up larger amounts of his time. He didn’t seem to mind. Coincidentally, he had already given up his music-business dream, frustrated by how little another billion-dollar digital service, Spotify, pays musicians. The union, in contrast, gave him purpose and direction. The group set up an information tent near the thimble and reached out to other Foodsters on Facebook. Foodora, meanwhile, continued to insist that couriers were independent contractors and ineligible to unionize, but they weren’t taking any chances—they also started sending emails and push notifications directly to couriers, warning them of exorbitant union dues and advising them to vote against joining the union.

It turns out that organizing is onerous. They needed to sign up 40 per cent of the workforce to join the union, but nobody knew how big the workforce was. Making matters more difficult, the avatars of the gig economy have consistently characterized themselves as the future, and unions as an outmoded relic of a bygone labour economy. You want the speed and convenience these apps promise? Then you don’t want unions, which will slow everything down and make it all more expensive. Also, how exactly would the gains that unions have traditionally fought for—minimum wages, properly paid overtime, etc.—be applied to workers who work irregular hours and for multiple companies? If unionization was successful, would it mean the eventual demise of the gig economy, which, for all its flaws, provides unskilled workers with some income? It was all very complicated.

But organizing workers has always been onerous and complicated. And other industries, just as complex and once ruled by enormous anti-labour forces, have successfully unionized over the past century: mining, manufacturing, construction, professional sports. The gig economy may be new, it may be different, but all it really requires is an expansion of the definition of employment. (Foodora’s Sadie Weinstein told Toronto Life that the company doesn’t believe their couriers need a union, suggesting it would affect flexibility, be detrimental to gig-economy workers and interfere with the company’s so-called open-door policy, which allows Foodsters to drop into the office to register complaints.)

When I met with Ostos, he was optimistic that they could pull it off. CUPW had generated media interest. Lots of couriers were signing up, he said, though he didn’t want Foodora to know how many. Then, a month later, there was a sign of hope for the gig-economy workforce: hundreds of Toronto Uber drivers joined the United Food and Commercial Workers, calling for better pay and extended health coverage.

As supportive of Ostos and Foodsters as I was, I raised a skeptical eyebrow. When I planted trees, I told Ostos, there was no union. We were treated terribly. It sucked, but I could make enough money to pay for school, and I wasn’t going to be a tree-planter for life. Isn’t being a Foodster similar, a kind of rite of passage, something you suffer through then move past? Ostos smiled grimly. He’d heard this before. “To accept injustice, just because you’re young? That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “People get stuck in these jobs. There are guys who were bike messengers in the ’80s and they’re doing food now. They didn’t move on and get a law degree or become a doctor. They had to keep working. I could try to find a better job. Or I could try to better my job.”

The secret life of food couriers

Ahmad Jarbou, 34

Works for: Foodora, DoorDash, Uber Eats Kilometres clocked: 6,000 Orders delivered: 1,500

“I have a degree in electrical engineering, and I used to teach computer programming in Lebanon while working as a courier. Now I work part time while I run an online business selling computer accessories. I live in Whitby but take the GO train downtown at least three days a week to work. I like the job, but the wages aren’t fair. On a large order, the company might make $60 while I make $5, even though I’m the one doing all the heavy lifting. I try to stay as safe as possible—I check my lights and brakes regularly, I avoid streetcar tracks and I always wear a helmet. Unfortunately, there’s no growth as a cycle courier. Eventually, I want to do something related to my field of study.”

My DoorDash biker bag weighed about two pounds empty. It was insulated, with collapsible walls inside that allowed me to keep orders separate. It could hold a lot, and was surprisingly comfortable to carry. When I wasn’t delivering food, I sometimes used it for grocery shopping. I ended up working five Dashes, nine hours in total, and made about $120, which I donated to charity.

After those first few shifts, the bag sat for a month, untouched, by my front door. It provided a weird kind of reassurance. Rather than work in my stuffy home office, pumping out pitches that went nowhere, or toiling on my never-ending book, I could theoretically strap on the bag, climb on my bike and make money instantly. I wouldn’t have to think. I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. I’d be out in the sun, getting exercise, my nervous system awash in adrenalin. But I’d also be a middle-aged guy with a bad knee barely making minimum wage. And meanwhile, DoorDash would be raking in more money. The company’s valuation continued to grow—in May, it raised $600 million (U.S.) from investors, and increased its valuation to $12.6 billion (U.S.). Coincidentally, or not, my cat peed on my biker bag. I put it in the garage.

Meanwhile, the union drive had intensified. Foodsters United submitted their application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for certification, allowing Foodora couriers to vote on whether they would join CUPW. Still, the fundamental question of what kind of workers they were hung in the air. The vote ended in mid-August, and the wait began for the matter to be determined by the board, which could take months. If the couriers voted yes and the board gives the green light, the union could move to bargaining and Canada would have its first gig-economy union. If it was a no on either count, well, then it’s the Uber drivers’ turn.

On one of the most sweltering evenings of the summer, neither my wife nor I felt like cooking. It would have been a perfect day to order in. Instead, we walked to the tiny café around the corner from our house, which was hosting a taco pop-up. The tacos were great, the margaritas tart and the service excellent—our waiter kept our seven-year-old well supplied with Pokémon trivia and tortilla chips. Afterwards, we met up with some friends and got ice cream at the hip new shop just down the street, its dizzying selection of flavours including vegan yuzu sorbet and mango sticky rice. We slowly walked along the gentrifying industrial strip, making our way past a bustling microbrewery, talking about how we might revitalize the neighbouring parkette, which was filling up with picnickers and the smell of weed. If this all sounds a bit like a Portlandia episode, okay, it kind of was. But it was also a vivid illustration of community and commerce working well, of the pleasurable way a city can feel like a village, of old-fashioned neighbourliness. When I saw a lone Foodster pedalling by, I silently wished him well and walked the other way.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.



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