How AI can help gig workers understand their rights

A new resource from Queen’s University aims to demystify the legal world — and give workers access to informed advice
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Jun 29, 2020
A recent Supreme Court of Canada decision has made it possible for a $400 million class-action lawsuit to proceed against Uber. (iStock.com/vgajic)

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KINGSTON — When food courier Brice Sopher returned to the Toronto roads to make deliveries for Uber Eats, he found himself in what he describes as a surreal scene: cycling along streets mostly devoid of vehicle traffic, and rarely, if ever, interacting face to face with his customers.

“It was like a post-apocalyptic experience,” says Sopher. “The city is empty, and I’m dropping off food. I must say it was nice with less traffic.”

Sopher says that, over the last few months, demand for food delivery has remained constant. (Though Uber hasn’t released Ontario-specific data, Bloomberg News reported earlier this month that “consumers stuck at home have boosted [Uber Eats’] business globally by 52% to $4.68 billion in the first quarter” of 2020. Meanwhile, Uber’s ride-hailing service has seen an 80 per cent drop in demand.) And since his other work has dried up, Sopher has relied on Uber Eats as his only source of income. He usually works four or five days a week.

Sopher often decides the day of whether to go out and deliver. “It’s like playing video games as a type of employment. You’re thinking about the weather, the day of the week, how many people are staying home because of COVID-19. Is this an optimal day for me to go out?” says Sopher. He also factors in the incentives Uber uses to encourage people to make deliveries, such as cash bonuses for reaching a certain number of deliveries in a day. “Am I going to be able to make enough money today that I can justify taking a day off later this week?”

Working during the pandemic has caused frustration and safety concerns for many food couriers. As they’re considered independent contractors, they lack most of the benefits and protections afforded to employees — but, thanks to an app from Queen’s University, gig workers and others can learn about their legal options without needing to delve into case law or hire a lawyer.

Pablo Godoy, who coordinates national efforts on gig and platform-based initiatives for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, says the pandemic has exacerbated issues that were already present between workers and companies. At the heart of the issue, Godoy says, is that Uber and other online platform-based companies do not recognize their workers as employees. (A spokesperson for Uber tells TVO.org that “the vast majority of drivers say that flexibility is their number one reason for driving with Uber” and points to a 2018 University of Oxford study that suggests a majority of London’s Uber drivers would prefer to remain independent contractors rather than be made employees.)

“App-based employees have reached out to us during COVID,” says Godoy. “There’s been a lack of support for them, or measures to protect them, from their employers.” He says that requests for PPE from workers have been ignored. (According to Uber, it has now begun distributing masks and disinfectant to drivers who request them.) Godoy says UFCW is hearing from drivers who do not want to work for fear of catching or spreading the virus, but for whom Uber has not applied for the federal wage subsidy. Independent contractors aren’t necessarily eligible for subsidies through their app-based employers. 

“These are front-line workers. They live and work where people are,” says Godoy. “A lot of people have had to stay home, causing financial strife. The government support requires an employer/employee relationship.”

Hope came on June 26 for Canadian Uber drivers trying to be recognized as employees. A Supreme Court of Canada decision has made it possible for a $400 million class-action lawsuit to proceed against the company. The court decided that drivers can have their labour issues resolved through Ontario courts. “Going forward, dispute resolution will be more accessible to drivers, bringing Uber Canada closer in line with other jurisdictions,” an Uber spokesperson told CBC News in a written statement. 

But many gig-economy workers may not know what rights or forms of recourse are available to them. That’s where MyOpenCourt, a product of the Conflict Analytics Lab at Queen’s University’s law school, comes in: it uses AI to analyze troves of legal data to determine whether workers are employees or contractors and whether they have a potential employment-law case. If they do, it then connects them with a lawyer. 

Samuel Dahan, the director and founder of MyOpenCourt, says the tool can be a valuable one for gig workers. “It depends on the individual, but if the workers are only working for one platform, it’s very likely that the law will see them as an employee,” says Dahan, noting that legal precedent is moving in that direction. “That’s what the French supreme court decided; that’s what California decided. They classified these workers as employees. My feeling is the same thing will happen in Canada.”

“We started this employment-law project in 2018. We didn’t expect a pandemic in 2020,” says Dahan. The page launched last month; Dahan says that 6,000 people have used the service so far and that about 50 have been connected to a lawyer and had their dispute settled. He says, given the size of the Canadian economy, that’s a significant number, though he’s unsure whether it’s related to the pandemic. 

“The exercise of finding a precedent is something every lawyer does,” says Dahan. “What’s groundbreaking, I think, is that we are sharing that power with everybody.” A wrongful-dismissal case, for example, might cost a worker $30,000 in legal fees. “There’s a desire for democratic justice.”

University of Ottawa law students are also trying to make employment law more accessible: they have recently launched the Ottawa Pro Bono Employment Law Legal Clinic. Its mandate is to “provide free summary legal advice to individuals who are facing unemployment or are experiencing other work-related legal issues and who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer.” It offers services virtually in both English and French. 

Sopher, the Toronto food courier, says he doesn’t mind speaking up about some of the challenges of working in the gig economy. He says he’s criticized Uber in the past, and he’ll do it again: “They don’t technically employ me, according to their own logic.”

“The overarching issue that a lot of us have working for these platform-based delivery services is the inhumanity of them. The worker is often the last person they think of.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 800 people have used MyOpenCourt; in fact, 6,000 people have used it.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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