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Rob Shaw: NDP takes shockingly pragmatic approach to gig economy legislation

A sensible balance to dealing with employment concerns under multinational tech companies has a much better chance of long-term survival, writes Rob Shaw
New legislation for the gig economy isn't exactly what the BC Federation of Labour wanted. Surprisingly, it’s much more in line with suggestions from the app companies, according to columnist Rob Shaw.

It would have been oh so easy — and oh so satisfying, even — for B.C. New Democrats to bring down the legislative hammer on gig economy workers who drive and deliver for apps like Uber and Lyft.

After all, their allies in organized labour were jockeying for a hardline approach to classify the drivers as employees with benefits. And the NDP has no love lost for the multinational tech companies, having clashed with them over delivery fees during the pandemic, as well as the introduction of ride-hailing legislation in 2018.

But to the government’s credit, it took the high road. Its new legislation, and draft regulations, make a lot of practical sense — even if they leave organized labour disappointed.

“We have some deep concerns around some of the approaches taken,” said BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore.

The new rules will technically categorize those who drive and deliver on app-based services as employees, but also exempt them from most of the requirements under labour law for things like sick pay, vacation time, minimum shifts, overtime and more.

Instead, the companies will be required to pay into WorkSafeBC so that the drivers can claim medical benefits if they are injured on the job. 

Drivers won’t be paid while waiting for an order on the apps, like unions had wanted, but they will get at least 120 per cent minimum wage when actually engaged on a call. Companies will also have to abide by new pay transparency rules.

It’s not what the BC Federation of Labour wanted. Surprisingly, it’s much more in line with suggestions from the app companies. They had argued that treating drivers like full or part-time employees would have collapsed their business model, which is based on drivers having the flexibility to jump on and off the apps at any point of the day, as well as swap between multiple apps at any given time.

Uber said it was “supportive” of the rules and encouraged by B.C.’s new model.

At the centre of all of this is Labour Minister Harry Bains. Six years into the labour file, he continues to surprise with his approach. Despite being a former union official with the Steelworkers, Bains has charted a pragmatic and realistic approach to labour relations for most of his tenure.

Yes, the NDP has made it easier to get union-certified. But it has resisted – again and again – tilting the labour relations balance too far to the benefit of unions — perhaps realizing that whenever the next party takes power one day, it would be just as easy to whipsaw all the changes back even harder the other way. A more sensible balance has a much better chance of long-term survival.

Bains said he recognizes the economy is changing.

“This work is different, this is not your typical 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., same employer day in and day out, two coffee breaks, one lunch break,” said Bains. 

“These workers, sometimes they are employed by two or three or multiple different apps to maximize their earnings. So it's difficult to declare an employee and an employer for that purpose at that particular time.”

Those who work in the sector overwhelmingly told government during public consultation that they wanted “flexibility” in the gig economy rules, so they could continue to take app assignments on top of existing jobs, or in-between other apps.

The NDP could have ignored this, and rammed an ideological solution into place, telling workers it was for their own good. But Bains, instead, appeared to listen.

Helping matters was Uber’s intense lobbying. The company in early 2023 partnered with UFCW Canada to come up with a joint proposal it presented to provincial governments. Having a union on board, validating Uber’s approach, helped open more doors within B.C.’s NDP government. 

B.C. is the second province with legislation on gig workers, following Ontario. Bains said he’ll continue to tweak the rules in the figure to ensure the right balance, as well as consider new regulations for other parts of the gig economy sector. 

“We believe that the position that we are taking is the right balance, making sure the jobs are preserved, at the same time the workers are treated with the fairness and dignity,” he said.

It looks, so far, like the right call. 

Note: Uber Canada is currently a sponsor of Political Capital, my political podcast and TV show on CHEK TV. The company has no influence or input on news and editorial matters, including the content of this column.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.