How Foodsters United Is Organizing Canada’s Gig Economy

After unionizing gig economy workers, Ontario’s courier union Foodsters United found themselves without an employer when Foodora filed for bankruptcy. Now they’re exploring how worker cooperatives could use the efficiency of platform structures to bypass corporate exploitation.

Workers participating in the Justice for Foodora Couriers campaign in 2019. (Photo: Spring magazine)

Foodora, the Berlin-based food courier delivery service, arrived in Canada in 2015. After acquiring Hurrier to expedite its entrance, the company helped “disrupt” the food delivery industry in many of Canada’s major cities and beyond. By 2020, however, it was gone.

Employing a huge fleet of cyclists, e-bike riders, and drivers, Foodora became a central architect of the so-called “gig economy” in Canada. By now, the model is a familiar, border-crossing phenomenon, a classic example of how capital retooled its war chest for the 2010s.

Workers are classified by the gig employers — such as Uber, SkipTheDishes, and Doordash — as “independent contractors,” a designation that allows the companies to cast off responsibility for health and safety protections. This ensures that they no longer need to worry about paying minimum wage and unemployment insurance contributions or respecting workers’ rights that are enshrined in law.

Twenty-First-Century Tech, Nineteenth-Century Employment

Freed from the normal constraints of labor law, companies like Foodora offer workers piecework pay (or pay per order), while imposing low, ever-changing, confusing, and unaccountable pay structures that fluctuate from one day to the next. The model incentivizes employees to put themselves in danger — by working in poor weather conditions or driving and riding too fast — while making their income stream completely unpredictable.

Unsurprisingly, Foodora offered hardly any protections or benefits, despite the dangerous nature of the work. Workers often paid out of their own pockets for services like physiotherapy or dentistry to address injuries that happen frequently in courier work. Workers also shouldered the costs of providing their own vehicle and paying for their own repairs, phone bills, and gas.

Foodora, of course, is just one example of many negligent gig employers. These so-called industry “disruptors” — and their boosters in media and government — often brag about their tech acumen and innovation, conveniently sidestepping the fact that their success depends on low labor costs realized through employee misclassification.

The model is then sold to workers and the public in a host of ways: supposedly, it allows everyone to have flexible lives, for employees to work when they want, and it rewards the hustlers who are hungry for work. Proper classification, companies argue, would take all of this away.

Disrupting the Disruptors

In the summer of 2019, the Greater Toronto Area–based Justice for Foodora Couriers (or Foodsters United) campaign went public in Toronto and Mississauga. The main goal was unionization, but it was also about challenging precarious work more broadly.

As Brice Sopher, a courier and activist with Foodsters United, told Jacobin:

Legal protections of workers have been eroded in the last few decades and, on top of that, the laws hardly take the gig economy into account. Loopholes need to be closed, workers need to be categorized properly, and more regulation is required.

Workers waged a hard-fought campaign to join the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), based on face-to-face contact: “There was really no other way. We had to organize in secret, and the company was never going to give us all the information we needed.”

A popular tactic was postering and stickering in public spaces with Foodsters iconography, creating temporary bulletins, which Sopher says was a way to “communicate with workers in response to the challenge of such a widespread workforce with no common workplace.” Sympathetic customers helped out with “order-in days” to talk to couriers about the drive.

As the movement grew, Sopher says, it changed to better reflect the reality of the workforce:

Most couriers in Toronto drive, especially outside of downtown. How do we speak to them and ensure the union is fighting for things that are important to them? Many workers are landed immigrants, or even undocumented immigrants, and international students . . . the experience of trans or women couriers is very different than cis males, so the fight has to also be a fight for their rights and safety.

As they expanded their membership, the concerns of undocumented workers became key: “Because of their legal status, they have all these other challenges. Getting medical treatment is not easy — they are rightfully worried about doing anything that might put their life in Canada at risk — so that means forgoing a lot of supports and activities we take for granted.”

A key partner in the campaign was CUPW, bringing media, legal, and organizational expertise to the drive. “They had the experience of looking the boss straight in the eye and not flinching,” Sopher says.

Liisa Schofield, a staff organizer at CUPW, observes that Canada is “seeing massive growth in e-commerce and same day or immediate delivery, which has expanded under COVID and really highlighted the need for increased protections for worker . . . it is in all of our urgent interests in the labor movement and as working-class people to organize alongside gig workers and all precarious workers.”

Couriers took the unionization vote in August 2019. The results were sealed pending a crucial court challenge sent to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) over the million-dollar question: whether or not Foodora workers were dependent contractors that have the right to unionize, or independent contractors that don’t.

Organizing the Gig Economy

In California, Uber and Lyft threatened a temporary capital strike against a new law that recognized drivers as employees, not independent contractors. They then paid a whopping $200 million pushing for a “yes” vote on Proposition 22 to overturn that law. When workers assert their fundamental rights, companies like Uber spare no expense in retaliation — or they petulantly exit the market altogether. In the case of Prop 22, Silicon Valley’s tech-bro brahmins have won for now, but only after the most expensive proposition campaign in the state’s history.

However, in a landmark move that struck the heart of the gig economy in Canada, the OLRB sided with the workers in February of 2020, declaring: “As the evidence bears out, couriers more closely resemble employees than independent contractors.” In effect, this ruling recognizes the right of couriers, as dependent contractors, to join a union.

Similar rulings may soon have an effect on Uber, which is facing a $400 million class action lawsuit from its Ontario drivers. In response, the company recently imposed a new contract on its drivers that made them forfeit their right to participate in class action lawsuits and barred them from work until the contract was accepted.

Two months after the OLRB Foodora ruling, Foodora began bankruptcy proceedings, citing profitability concerns. Many argued that Foodora’s filing was a spurious and cynical union-busting scheme. It should be noted, however, that Foodora’s position in the market, according to Sopher, had been “abysmal.”

Whatever the cause of the proceedings, Foodora workers resolved not to take their collective termination lying down. Following the bankruptcy announcement, represented by CUPW, they won a $3.46 million settlement, which was distributed to workers across the country. But the fallout from the bankruptcy claim was still a tough pill to swallow. “In the immediate aftermath, it left us in a really tough spot,” Sopher says. “Many people were out of work, and for a lot of folks, it was the only work they could find.”

Foodora left Canada on May 11, 2020. Soon after their departure, the OLRB unsealed the results of the union vote: 88.8 percent in favor of unionization — the first vote, and win, of its kind in Canada. One thing has been made clear: workers everywhere are pushing back against the dictates of the gig economy.

Sopher describes how the campaign is moving forward:

For now, the focus is on maintaining contact with and remaining useful to those who are already on board, while accepting any new folks who believe in the cause . . . a lot of people were left without a source of income, so we started a relief fund to help people pay bills and buy groceries. We partnered with FoodShare to get fresh produce out to people so they could eat healthy. The company was gone, but the community remained.

Democratizing Digital Platforms

The COVID-19 crisis has brought gig workers front and center, raising questions about their ability to collect unemployment benefits or refuse unsafe work, and their lack of access to paid sick days despite their “essential” status. As time pushes on, new challenges are emerging, as Sopher observes:

This type of work has a lot of turnover. The amount of people who work in the industry can fluctuate from season to season, year to year. Mix on top of that the isolation of individual workers, and it becomes hard to stay abreast of those who are already members, let alone those who could potentially join. The solution is making the effort to consistently and proactively reach out, to constantly have actions and other opportunities for members to take part in, and to go out there and engage with folks directly. A good steward program is key.

Beyond organizing the gig work that exists, Foodsters is looking toward actually creating an alternative — a food delivery cooperative: “When Foodora closed, it triggered a question: Is the delivery gig economy even viable? Many think no. They point to Foodora closing, the fact that most of these companies have yet to make a profit, and conclude it’s impossible. As couriers, we came with a different perspective.” Sopher argues that “the demand for the type of service we provide will never go away. It will, in fact, accelerate. The genie is never going back in the bottle.” So, what if couriers bypassed the corporate profiteers and used technology to create a sustainable industry of their own?

Foodster’s idea for a food delivery cooperative is still in its early stages. But the contours of their vision are taking shape:

A co-op run and controlled by workers wouldn’t just have the effect of guaranteeing workers are taken care of and paid a living wage, it could also be a viable competitor to the established companies by trimming the fat at the top. Then there are all the other added benefits of having lower fees for restaurants, so they’re better able to survive the current situation and, going forward, thrive and lower fees for customers. That could create a sustainable economic ecosystem for all.