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Punched on the job: when gig workers are denied basic safety support

An assaulted Uber driver makes the case, say advocates, for extending employee rights. The BC government isn’t sure.
Aman Sood was injured while working as an Uber driver. His case shows the need for more rights for app workers, say advocates.

Aman Sood was supposed to drive the man in the yellow construction vest to McCallum Road in Abbotsford for $4.42.

On the way the two got into an argument about which exit to take from the highway. It escalated, and Sood decided to pull over and cancel the trip. Sood’s dashcam captures the passenger leaning forward from the backseat. He cocks his fist, pauses for a moment, yells and punches Sood in the side of the head.

Days later, Abbotsford police caught the suspect. William Tickle, 38, now faces charges of assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats.

But that didn’t change things for Sood. He ended the trip beaten and bruised. He told The Tyee he could not feel his left shoulder, meaning he had been unable to drive and had lost his main source of income.

If he had almost any other boss, that wouldn’t be a problem. Sood could apply to the province’s workers’ compensation board for money and medical help.

But Sood works for Uber, a company that considers all its workers to be independent contractors and not employees.

On Friday, he got the official news. His request for compensation had been rejected. A few weeks later, Sood bought a plane ticket home to India. He said he no longer had the money to stay in Canada.

“They don’t care,” Sood said in an interview. “It is very clear that they are not going to give anything.”

The assault on Sood has added fuel to a growing policy battle over what British Columbia should do about companies like Uber, whose workers operate without basic labour protections most take for granted.

Years of government consultations with drivers for such platform-based apps have found persistent problems around pay transparency, scheduling and worker safety.

The companies, backed by certain business groups, have argued those problems can be fixed without changing how they classify their workers.

But the BC Federation of Labour has called on the province to pass laws that would require such companies to designate their workers as employees, guaranteeing them a minimum wage, paid sick leave, severance pay and other protections afforded to most workers.

“We should be leading on this,” said federation president Sussanne Skidmore in an interview. “We should be leading the country in making sure these folks who are currently misclassified in the system are classified properly, that they are deemed employees.”

Employers have argued such regulation would make their platforms uncompetitive and remove the flexibility that draws many workers. In consultations with government, they’ve argued that the kind of regulation Skidmore wants would result in a mass exodus from their platforms.

In the meantime, many drivers like Sood say they are struggling to make ends meet — and frustrated with the slow pace of change.

“I feel like more and more, I’m overworked and underpaid,” Uber driver Arvin Singh said in a February interview.

Starting on the job

Before Sood drove for Uber, he was an instructor for yoga teachers. Sood has travelled across the world to teach the craft, he said, and ran a successful studio in B.C. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and his business failed. He began driving with Uber to make ends meet, he said.

But recently, he had become frustrated with the app. He suspected Uber was taking a bigger slice of his earnings than it had before and that tips left by customers weren’t reaching his wallet.

Sood is now part of a larger group of drivers in B.C. who have spoken out about the lack of basic labour protections and called on government to intervene.

“They’ve flooded the market with so many drivers that it feels unsustainable, in a sense. They have more drivers than jobs. And I feel like that’s disingenuous to the workers,” said Singh, who has driven for Uber for more than three years.

Singh says there’s little to no transparency on how Uber divides the proceeds of each trip. And while he appreciates the flexibility of the work, he says drivers can also be kicked off the app without any kind of severance pay or compensation if they get a bad review from a customer.

“Nine out of 10 times, people are drunk at night. They’re upset you don’t stop at McDonald’s because they’re drunk. They file a complaint, and you’re off the app,” Singh said.

Sometimes, the app even takes wages back. On March 31, the company said a widespread glitch caused some Uber Eats workers to be paid double for certain deliveries. It responded by clawing back that money from people across the platform. An Uber spokesperson would not say how many drivers were affected or how much money was taken back.

And when drivers are injured on the job, they can’t always turn to the worker’s compensation system for help. Many drivers like Sood have applied to WorkSafeBC for replacement income and medical help only to be rejected.

A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC told The Tyee that it reviews such contracts on a “case-by-case basis” and that it is “closely following federal, provincial and international initiatives regarding the gig economy.”

None of those problems are new. In its 2017 platform, the BC NDP acknowledged the rise of “gig work” was transforming the province’s job market. In 2020, it promised to start work on a strategy to address it. It tasked MLA Adam Walker with wide-reaching consultations in the sector, including meetings with dozens of gig workers across the province. Walker has since been replaced in that role by Janet Routledge, the new parliamentary secretary for labour.

The province’s report, released last month, highlighted issues of low pay, non-existent benefits and precarity in the sector.

It also highlighted a stark divide on what to do about it. On one hand, labour advocates like the federation argue many drivers for such companies meet the definition of employees, not independent contractors. In B.C., that distinction means workers are guaranteed a minimum wage, paid sick leave and severance pay and have the right to unionize.

According to the government’s report, companies told the province that classifying workers as employees would make the work less flexible. They also argued workers don’t meet the definition of employee because some delivery and ride-share workers use multiple apps at the same time to maximize profits.

Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers advocated for more protections in a submission to the B.C. government last year, including a minimum salary equal to 120 per cent of the minimum wage,” benefits and access to health and safety protections for on-the-job injuries. They argued Uber drivers should be able to unionize and bargain collectively.

UFCW western representative Pablo Godoy said last year that no existing classification under the labour code meets app workers’ needs.

The national union announced it had signed an agreement in January 2022 to provide Uber drivers and delivery people with “strong representation.”

UFCW Local 1518 went to the BC Labour Relations Board in 2019 to argue Lyft and Uber drivers should be considered employees under B.C.’s Labour Relations Code.

But the board dismissed the union’s application and decided against employee status for drivers.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which is seeking to represent Uber drivers in Toronto, has filed an unfair labour practices’ complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

It argued the Uber-UFCW national agreement undercut CUPW’s own efforts to organize drivers.

Jennifer Scott is a long-time courier and president of Gig Workers United in Toronto, which is affiliated with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ campaign.

“What Uber is doing now is just like another one of the tools from their international playbook. They’ve done this before,” Scott said.

But for all the furor over whether those drivers are employees or not, B.C.’s minister of labour says it’s not up to him to decide.

Labour Minister Harry Bains, who met with Sood after the attack, has said the matter of whether drivers are employees is up to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, not him.

In an interview last month, Bains said app workers can also appeal to the Employment Standards Branch if they feel they are being wrongly denied legal protections.

“I don’t make that decision as minister,” Bains said. “I have encouraged those drivers to file complaints with the Employment Standards Branch. It’s that branch that will make that determination — not those employees, not the company or the minister.”

But Skidmore says the government could pass legislation to make it explicitly clear it considers those workers employees. “That’s a decision the government can make. It’s a decision the cabinet can make,” she said.

The Employment Standards Branch said it has never issued a determination about employee classification for any worker for DoorDash, Uber, SkipTheDishes or Lyft, several of the largest companies operating in the sector.

Skidmore pointed out that many drivers and delivery workers are new Canadians or immigrants.

“It’s an erosion of the way we treat workers in this province, and we shouldn’t be doing that here,” she said.

Some labour experts argue that failing to clamp down on those firms could embolden other companies to look for loopholes in employment law.

“If they investigated these employers, they would find that most of their employees who are app-based are employees as defined by the act,” said David Fairey in a February interview with The Tyee. Fairey is a labour economist and co-chair of the BC Employment Standards Coalition. He said excluding such workers from the definition of an employee would create loopholes employers in other sectors could exploit in the future to lower costs.

“It creates another category of worker which is not going to be entitled to all the rights and benefits of the Employment Standards Act. There are enough exclusions from the act as it is already,” he said.

Drivers are divided on the matter. As the government report suggested, many like the option to work their own hours. But others say incidents like the attack on Sood show why they need stronger labour protections.

Kuljeet Singh, who has been driving for Uber for more than four years, says he used to be able to make a decent living driving on the app. But now, he said, the rising cost of living and falling wages are making it harder.

“I work 60 to 70 hours. It’s OK if I get good money. But I don’t have benefits. I pay my own dental. I pay for my own medicine. What am I getting from them?” Singh said.

With files from Andrew MacLeod.