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Cycle salvation. Design: Angela M. Photo: Sean Botti.

A bike courier’s perspective: “Back to normal” isn’t a fair deal for delivery workers

By Apartment613 on August 14, 2020

By Sean Botti

My gig as a bike courier began when my wife suggested I see if our local bookstore needed someone to do deliveries. My government day job had us working on rotation and the pandemic was just getting started. I assumed that, like other small businesses, they too would be struggling with the curve ball that COVID-19 presented. To my surprise, they were open to it. Since the pandemic started, they had suddenly become an online bookstore and were learning as they went. Amazon wasn’t delivering non-essential items, which, given that they began their business by selling books, seemed kind of odd to me.

Excellent, I thought. I am going to be a book fairy! The thought crossed my mind to buy little wings, so I could magically arrive at doorsteps with books. I’d never worked as a bike courier before. The most intense cycling I had ever done was with my wife at a spin class. Also, we had just found out my wife was pregnant, and a few extra dollars would come in handy. Plus, I now had an excuse to buy a cycling cap I’d had my eye on at Bushtukah.

The author’s bike. Photo: Sean Botti.

The thought crossed my mind to deliver for Uber Eats on my bike during the pandemic too, but I wasn’t sure I’d like the experience. I think delivering for third-party apps, such as Uber Eats, counts as an honest day’s work, but I’d heard about the union push of Foodora couriers in Toronto. I had also read about Foodora’s sudden exit from the Canadian market after the Ontario Labour Relations Board made its landmark decision determining such couriers were better classified as dependent contractors, not independent contractors. What this means, essentially, is that Foodora bike couriers had a legal right to organize and start a union. Foodora claims that they were leaving the Canadian market shortly after, due to a lack of profitability. I’m not sure I buy it.

I started getting interested in labour issues when I became a unit steward with my government job. A lot of things I care about, like social justice and human rights, intersect with labour issues. And when I began my gig as a book fairy, I had been recently accepted into the Labour College of Canada’s (LCC) certificate program. So I was interested in learning more about the gig economy in my area, which prompted me to think more about my own experiences as a temporary bike courier.

Unlike those working for platform apps, I was able to talk with my co-workers. Uber Eats doesn’t allow their couriers to communicate with one another, which makes organizing for worker’s rights more difficult. Labour’s traditional means of improving worker conditions is to organize. With a lot of talk about social isolation during the pandemic, I was grateful to get outside on my bike and interact with coworkers at the store and the customers I met.

The delivery services I used to take for granted were suddenly essential. These invisible jobs, the cleaners, the delivery workers, were becoming more and more visible during the pandemic. Conversations about paid sick leave and workplace safety were getting the attention they deserve.

Also, I’ve learned that although platforms like Uber Eats were offering free delivery for customers during the pandemic, they were still charging restaurants up to 30 per cent of the sale. I started noticing more stores in Ottawa offering their own in-house delivery. The delivery services I used to take for granted were suddenly essential. These invisible jobs, the cleaners, the delivery workers, were becoming more and more visible during the pandemic. Conversations about paid sick leave and workplace safety were getting the attention they deserve.

After the experiences of failed attempts at unionizing and not wanting to engage in a race to the bottom in wages and working standards, Stephane Fortin and another colleague decided to create their own courier system. Veloz is an owner-operated, same-day delivery service that is also in the process of trying to form a cooperative. Cooperatives are democratically run and value-based by nature. At Veloz, 80 per cent of commissions go directly to the cyclist. It took a lot of education about the actual costs of their time and proven work ethic, but they’ve been able to carve out a niche for themselves in the Ottawa area. Stephane is passionate about what he does. It was clear to me in chatting with him that forming a cooperative was the only ethical thing to do in the same-day delivery service. That, or be exploited.

While COVID-19 reduced Veloz’s deliveries for law firms and print shops by 80 per cent, they’ve been able to stay afloat by delivering for retail shops in the area. They also helped some of their laid-off colleagues in the courier industry find jobs delivering for Stash & Co. dispensary, the first legal on-demand cannabis delivery service in Ontario. Although Veloz doesn’t employ all the couriers that deliver for Stash & Co., to Stephane, “community is more than in-house staff to us.” I found this sense of community really inspiring.

People are risking their health to deliver essential items during this pandemic. Platform apps are taking advantage of the independent contractor designation, according to Thomas McKechnie of Justice for Foodora couriers. The tide could be turning, however: the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that a clause that forced Uber drivers to take complaints to arbitration in the Netherlands, instead of suing in Ontario, was so unfair, it was deemed invalid. Now some drivers could be bringing a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit against Uber to uphold protections under the Ontario Employment Standards Act.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the streets in Ottawa were so quiet. I dodged potholes with ease. People seemed to really appreciate the personal touch (well, touchless delivery) when I dropped off their books. I don’t want delivery services in Ottawa to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t treating workers fairly.