Transcript: Work Concerns During the Pandemic | May 01, 2020

Steve sits in a room with white walls, a low slanted ceiling and several framed pictures on the walls including one of George Drew and one of Walter Kronkite. He's slim, clean-shaven, in his fifties, with short curly brown hair. He's wearing a white shirt and a spotted purple tie.

A caption on screen reads "Work concerns during the pandemic. @spaikin, @theagenda."

Steve says MAY 1st IS ALSO KNOWN AS MAY DAY, WHEN LABOUR ISSUES COME TO MIND. AND DURING THIS TIME WHEN THE IMPORTANCE OF WORKERS IN THE GIG ECONOMY HAS NEVER BEEN SO EVIDENT, LET'S CHECK IN WITH SARA MOJTEHEDZADEH. SHE IS THE TORONTO STAR'S WORK AND WEALTH REPORTER. SARA, IT'S GOOD TO HAVE YOU ON TVO TONIGHT.

Sara is in her thirties, with long curly brown hair. She's wearing a denim shirt and silver hoop earrings.

Steve continues HOW ARE YOU MANAGING THROUGH ALL THIS?

Sara says I'M DOING WELL, THANKS. HOW ARE YOU?

Steve says I'M DOING WELL, THANKS. WE'RE GOING TO PLUCK FROM THE HEADLINES, AS THEY SAY, AND ONE OF THE BIGGEST STORIES IN THE LAST LITTLE WHILE HAS BEEN FOODORA. TWO MONTHS AFTER THESE COURIERS WON THE RIGHT TO UNIONIZE, THE COMPANY HAS BASICALLY SAID, WE'RE SKIPPING TOWN. THAT'S IT. TELL US THE STORY. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

The caption changes to "Sara Mojtehedzadeh. Toronto Star."

Sara says WELL, I FOUND OUT, I HAD CHECKED MY PERSONAL e-mail AND HAD AN e-mail IN MY INBOX THAT WAS ANNOUNCING FOODORA'S EXIT FROM THE CANADIAN MARKET. YOU KNOW, WHEN THE COURIERS WON THE SORT OF HISTORIC BATTLE AT THE LABOUR BOARD IN FEBRUARY, RECOGNIZING THEIR RIGHT TO JOIN A UNION, YOU KNOW, OF COURSE THERE WERE WHISPERS THAT, YOU KNOW, FOODORA WOULD MAKE THE DECISION TO AT SOME POINT LEAVE THE MARKET RATHER THAN UNIONIZE. BUT, YOU KNOW, I WAS CERTAINLY SURPRISED THAT THE TIMING IN A MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC, YOU KNOW, WHERE WE HAVE SEEN THE VALUE AND RELIANCE THAT PEOPLE HAVE ON THIS KIND OF SERVICE AND, YOU KNOW, I THINK MANY PEOPLE WOULD HAVE EXPECTED TO SEE ORDER VOLUMES GOING UP, BUT, NO, THE COMPANY CITED AN INABILITY TO COMPETE WITH OTHER FOOD DELIVERY APPS IN THE MARKET AND THAT THEY'D BE WRAPPING UP ON MAY 11TH.

Steve says YEAH, THE COMPANY, I THINK TOOK PAINS TO STRESS IT'S NOT BECAUSE OF THE UNIONIZATION EFFORTS THEY'RE LEAVING TOWN, IT'S SIMPLY AN ECONOMIC DECISION. DO THE FACTS BEAR THAT OUT?

Sara says THEY CERTAINLY SAID THAT THE DECISION HAS NO RELATIONSHIP TO THE LABOUR BOARD RULING IN FEBRUARY. I MEAN, IT'S DIFFICULT TO KNOW WHAT THEIR INTERNAL FINANCES ARE. THEY DID DECLARE... WELL, THEY STARTED BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDINGS LATER THIS WEEK, BUT, YOU KNOW, THE DAY AFTER THEY ANNOUNCED THAT THEY WERE LEAVING THE MARKET, THEIR PARENT COMPANY ISSUED THEIR FINANCIAL STATEMENTS FOR THE FIRST QUARTER AND SAW AMAZING GROWTH, DOUBLING ITS REVENUE, DOUBLING ORDER VOLUME, AND SPECIFICALLY REFERENCED THE PANDEMIC, YOU KNOW, SAYING THAT THIS HAS LED TO AN INCREASE IN DEMAND FOR THE SERVICES. SO, YOU KNOW, AS FOR FOODORA'S INTERNAL FINANCES, I THINK WE'LL GET A BETTER SENSE OF THAT AS THE BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDINGS MOVE FORWARD. I MEAN, WHAT I CAN SAY, THOUGH, IS THAT A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, FOODORA FOUND ITSELF IN A VERY SIMILAR SITUATION IN AUSTRALIA WHERE ONE OF ITS COURIERS TOOK THEIR CASE TO A TRIBUNAL THERE AND WAS RULED TO BE AN EMPLOYEE RATHER THAN AN INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR, WHICH IS THE KIND OF DEFAULT DESIGNATION THAT FOODORA GIVES ITS COURIERS, WHICH MEANS THEY'RE NOT ENTITLED TO A UNION IN MOST CASES, THEY'RE NOT ENTITLED TO PROTECTIONS UNDER LOCAL EMPLOYMENT LAWS. THE COURIER WON. AND NOT LONG AFTER THAT, AGAIN, FOODORA EXITED THE AUSTRALIAN MARKET, LEAVING SOME UNPAID DEBTS BEHIND. SO I THINK, YOU KNOW, MANY OF THE COURIERS HERE IN TORONTO ARE SAYING, YOU KNOW, THERE'S A TEMPLATE FOR THIS. THERE'S A PATTERN HERE.

Steve says SO WHAT HAPPENS TO THE WORKERS NOW?

Sara says I MEAN, I THINK THAT'S THE BIG QUESTION. I THINK, YOU KNOW, THE PANDEMIC HAS REALLY REVEALED AGAIN HOW ESSENTIAL THESE WORKERS ARE BUT ALSO HOW LITTLE PROTECTION THEY HAVE AND THE HOLES THAT ARE IN OUR SAFETY NET THAT THEY'RE FALLING THROUGH BECAUSE THEY ARE GIG WORKERS. YOU KNOW, INITIALLY THEY DIDN'T QUALIFY FOR THE EMERGENCY BENEFIT BECAUSE MANY OF THEM WERE STILL PICKING UP SHIFTS HERE AND THERE AND SO THEY WERE BRINGING IN SOME INCOME BUT NOT VERY MUCH. EVENTUALLY WITH SOME LOBBYING FROM THE CANADIAN UNION OF POSTAL WORKERS, THAT WAS HOPING TO REPRESENT THEM, THEY WERE ABLE TO EXPAND THE ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA. SO, YOU KNOW, GIVEN THIS SUDDEN EXIT FROM FOODORA, THEY WILL HAVE THAT AS A FALLBACK. BUT, YOU KNOW, RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING, ONE OF THE MAIN SORT OF MOTIVATIONS FOR THIS UNION DRIVE WAS TO BEEF UP THOSE PROTECTIONS THAT COURIERS HAVE AND, YOU KNOW, AS IT STANDS, BECAUSE THEY WERE CLASSIFIED AS INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS FOR SO LONG, THEY'RE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR EI, THEY'RE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR SEVERANCE PAY. AND THOSE WERE THE SORTS OF PROTECTIONS I THINK THEY WERE REALLY AFTER.

Steve says IT MIGHT BE WORSE THAN THAT. THEY ARE OWED SOME MONEY, ARE THEY NOT?

Sara says WHAT THE COMPANY HAS SAID SO FAR, AT LEAST WHAT THEY'VE SAID VIA THEIR TRUSTEE IN THE BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDINGS IS THAT THE COURIERS WILL RECEIVE THEIR PAY ON MAY 13TH. THEY WILL BE PAID OUT FOR ANY DELIVERIES THAT THEY'VE MADE UP UNTIL FOODORA'S CLOSURE. SO THEY ARE AT THIS POINT NOT CONSIDERED CREDITORS. FOODORA'S OWN EMPLOYEES, THOUGH, ITS HR TEAM, ITS LAYER OF DISPATCHERS THAT WOULD HELP SORT OF MANAGE ORDERS FROM A LOGISTICAL STANDPOINT, THEY ARE ALL LISTED AS CREDITORS AND THEY WILL HAVE TO GO THROUGH THE BANKRUPTCY PROCEEDINGS AND SEE WHAT FOODORA WILL OFFER THEM ON THEIR UNPAID WAGES. BUT AS IT STANDS, UNLIKE THE AUSTRALIA INSTANCE, IT LOOKS LIKE COURIERS ARE EXPECTED TO RECEIVE THEIR FULL PAY.

Steve says OKAY. NOW, LET'S TALK FOR A SECOND ABOUT THE OTHER BIG ENTRANT IN THIS FIELD, AND THAT'S UBER EATS. HOW MIGHT ALL OF THESE DEVELOPMENTS HAVE AN IMPACT ON THEM?

Sara says WELL, YOU KNOW, A LOT OF COURIERS ALREADY WORKED FOR MULTIPLE APPS IN THE CITY, AND, YOU KNOW, THERE ARE A LOT OF... I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO, WHEN THEY THINK OF THE GIG ECONOMY AND GIG WORK, SEE IT AS KIND OF A SIDE HUSTLE THAT YOUNG PEOPLE PICK UP ON TOP OF OTHER PURSUITS. IN SOME CASES, THAT'S CERTAINLY TRUE. IN OTHER CASES, THESE WORKERS ARE WORKING MULTIPLE JOBS THROUGH MULTIPLE APPS BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO. WORKING THROUGH A SINGLE APP IS NOT FINANCIALLY VIABLE. AND SO MANY OF THEM DID WORK FOR UBER EATS AS WELL, AND SO I EXPECT THAT WE'LL SEE, YOU KNOW, A BIG GLUT OF RIDERS WHO ARE NOW, YOU KNOW, FOCUSING THEIR DELIVERY EFFORTS ON ORDERS THAT THEY CAN GET THROUGH UBER EATS. THE PROBLEM WITH THAT FROM A FINANCIAL STANDPOINT IS THAT THE BIGGER THE POOL OF RIDERS, THE FEWER ORDERS THERE ARE TO GO AROUND, AND SO IT MAY NOT BE AS LUCRATIVE AS IT ONCE WAS.

Steve says IT'S ALWAYS HARD TO PREDICT THE FUTURE, YOU KNOW, WHEN SOMETHING THIS SIGNIFICANT HAPPENS IN ANY PARTICULAR SECTOR. BUT CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT AS A RESULT OF THIS WHOLE FOODORA PLAY, THAT WE'RE GOING TO GET EITHER MORE OR LESS REGULATION GOING FORWARD IN THIS AREA?

Sara says THAT'S A REALLY GOOD QUESTION, AND I THINK THAT FOR QUITE SOME TIME NOW, ACTUALLY, THERE HAS BEEN A REAL PUSH TO EXPAND OUR EMPLOYMENT LAWS TO OFFER STRONGER PROTECTION TO WORKERS WHO LABOUR ADVOCATES FEEL HAVE BEEN MISCLASSIFIED AS INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS SO THAT COMPANIES CAN AVOID CERTAIN LEGAL OBLIGATIONS. YOU KNOW, IT'S AROUND 30 percent CHEAPER FOR BUSINESSES TO CLASSIFY WORKERS AS INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS. BUT IN MANY CASES, THAT DESIGNATION IS NOT ACCURATE. THEY'RE ACTUALLY BEING TREATED AS EMPLOYEES WHO SHOULD HAVE CERTAIN RIGHTS UNDER OUR LABOUR LAWS. AND SO WHAT WE'VE SEEN JURISDICTIONS LIKE CALIFORNIA DOING IS REALLY IMPLEMENTING A STRONGER DEFINITION AND STRONGER SORT OF PRESUMPTIONS THAT WORKERS ARE EMPLOYEES UNLESS THE COMPANY CAN PROVE TO THE AUTHORITIES THAT THEY ARE NOT, AND I THINK THAT'S WHAT A LOT OF LABOUR ADVOCATES WANT TO SEE HERE, AND WHAT THAT WOULD DO IS AVOID A SITUATION WHERE INDIVIDUAL GROUPS OF WORKERS LIKE FOODORA COURIERS HAVE TO LITIGATE THEIR CASE AT A LABOUR BOARD AND GET A RULING AND THEN FACE THEIR EMPLOYER POTENTIALLY SKIPPING TOWN. RIGHT NOW IT'S VERY MUCH A CASE-BY-CASE SORT OF STRUGGLE FOR WORKERS, AND WHAT LABOUR ACTIVISTS WANT TO SEE IS AN EVEN PLAYING FIELD BETWEEN THESE APP COMPANIES THAT HAVE ESSENTIALLY THE SAME BUSINESS MODEL.

Steve says ANY INDICATION WHETHER THE ONTARIO GOVERNMENT IS GOING TO TAKE THE SAME APPROACH AS CALIFORNIA?

Sara says PROBABLY NOT. THE LAST ADMINISTRATION UNDER THE LIBERAL GOVERNMENT DID INSTITUTE SOME SMALL STEPS TOWARDS BETTER PROTECTION FOR INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS. THOSE WERE REVERSED UNDER THE FORD GOVERNMENT. BUT I THINK AGAIN THIS PANDEMIC HAS REALLY EXPOSED SOME OF THE FLAWS IN OUR SYSTEM, SO, YOU KNOW, WHETHER THAT CHANGES POLICYMAKERS' THINKING ON THIS, I DON'T KNOW. AND I THINK CERTAINLY THE FACT THAT WE'RE SEEING OTHER JURISDICTIONS EVEN SOUTH OF THE BORDER TAKING STRONGER ACTION ON THIS MIGHT GIVE A TEMPLATE TO OUR GOVERNMENTS HERE.

Steve says YOU JUST MENTIONED THE WORD PANDEMIC, AND I THINK THIS IS THE LONGEST I HAVE GONE IN AN INTERVIEW OVER THE LAST 6 WEEKS WITHOUT THE WORDS PANDEMIC OR COVID-19 OR CORONAVIRUS HAVING BEEN SAID UNTIL NOW. SO THANK YOU FOR THAT. BUT NOW THAT YOU'VE MENTIONED IT, I SUPPOSE WE SHOULD TALK A BIT ABOUT THAT. OF COURSE WE KNOW THAT PREMIER FORD HAS SAID FOR WEEKS THAT IF ANY WORKER IN THE PROVINCE OF ONTARIO FEELS THAT THEY ARE BEING URGED TO ATTEND AN UNSAFE WORKPLACE, THEY'RE ALLOWED TO REFUSE WORK. CAN YOU REALLY JUST PUT A LITTLE FLESH ON THAT BONE FOR US. WHAT ARE THE RIGHTS THAT PEOPLE HAVE IN THAT REGARD?

Sara says WELL, EVERY EMPLOYEE IN THE PROVINCE, AND AGAIN I USE THE WORD "EMPLOYEE," BECAUSE THERE IS A DISTINCTION IF YOU'RE NOT CLASSIFIED WON, IT BECOMES A BIT MORE MUDDY, BUT EVERY EMPLOYEE IN ONTARIO HAS THE RIGHT TO REFUSE UNSAFE WORK. THERE ARE SOME CAVEATS FOR HEALTH CARE WORKERS, FOR EXAMPLE, OR OTHER SORT OF FRONT LINE EMERGENCY SERVICES STAFF, THEY HAVE A MORE LIMITED RIGHT. BUT THE ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLE IS THAT YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE TO DO WORK YOU ARE UNCOMFORTABLE WITH AND THAT YOU FEAR IS AN IMMEDIATE HAZARD TO YOUR HEALTH AND SAFETY. SO THAT IS A LONGSTANDING PRINCIPLE. I THINK THAT THE CONCERN IN THIS ENVIRONMENT IS THAT, YOU KNOW, THERE IS SO MUCH ECONOMIC INSECURITY OUT THERE AND, ALTHOUGH IT'S ILLEGAL TO FACE REPRISAL FOR REFUSING WORK YOU THINK IS UNSAFE, I THINK THAT ANXIETY IS THERE, THAT IF WORKERS SAY NO TO SOMETHING THEY'RE NOT COMFORTABLE WITH, THEY WILL FACE SOME KIND OF RETRIBUTION FROM THEIR EMPLOYER, AND WE ALL KNOW HOW TOUGH IT IS GOING TO BE TO GET A NEW JOB IN THIS ECONOMY. SO THE RIGHT IS THERE. IN PRINCIPLE, IT CAN BE DIFFICULT TO ACT ON.

Steve says NOW, JUST REMIND ME OF SOMETHING I THINK I SAW THE OTHER DAY. WAS IT 200 WORKERS WHO HAD COME FORWARD SAYING I DON'T WANT TO GO ON THAT WORKPLACE SITE. I FEEL IT'S UNSAFE. THE LABOUR BOARD CONSIDERED ALL OF THOSE 200 CLAIMS AND REJECTED THEM ALL?

Sara says THAT'S RIGHT, YEAH. I GOT SOME DATA FROM THE MINISTRY OF LABOUR ON WORK REFUSALS, AND WHAT WE REALLY SEE IS JUST AN ENORMOUS INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF WORK REFUSALS BEING FILED. BEAR IN MIND, THESE ARE VERY SERIOUS SORT OF MINI STRIKES ALMOST BY WORKERS WHO FEEL, YOU KNOW, SO UNSAFE THAT THEY ARE WILLING TO STOP WORK AND FACE THAT POTENTIAL RETRIBUTION IF, YOU KNOW, IF THINGS GO AWRY. COMPARE THAT TO JANUARY AND FEBRUARY WHEN WE WERE SEEING AN AVERAGE OF AROUND FOUR WORK REFUSALS A WEEK. BY THE TIME THE PANDEMIC HIT AND WAS REALLY IN SORT OF FULL SWING BY MID-MARCH, WE ARE SEEING UP TO 83 WORK REFUSALS IN A SINGLE WEEK. AND, YES, THE MINISTRY OF LABOUR HAD NOT UPHELD A SINGLE ONE. AND THAT'S RAISED A LOT OF CONCERNS FOR LABOUR ADVOCATES WHO ARE REALLY PUSHING TO SEE STRONG ENFORCEMENT FROM THE MINISTRY OF LABOUR TO ENSURE THAT EMPLOYERS ABIDE BY THEIR LEGAL OBLIGATIONS, WHICH INCLUDE TAKING EVERY PRECAUTION REASONABLE TO PROTECT THEIR WORKERS FROM INJURY AND ALSO ILLNESS, AND THAT INCLUDES INFECTIOUS DISEASE.

Steve says WELL, LET'S JUST FIGURE OUT WHO WE'RE TALKING ABOUT HERE. CONSTRUCTION WORKERS I GUESS WOULD BE SOME OF THE MOST OBVIOUS EXAMPLES. PREMIER FORD DID MENTION MAYBE A WEEK OR TWO AGO ABOUT SEEING PICTURES OF, YOU KNOW, TRULY DISGUSTING HYGIENE AT CONSTRUCTION SITES, OVERFLOWING OUTHOUSES AND THIS TYPE OF THING. BUT WHAT OTHER JOBS MIGHT BE ON THAT LIST?

Sara says YEAH. I MEAN, I THINK WHAT THE RESEARCH IS SHOWING SO FAR IS THAT THE WORKERS WHO ARE AT GREATEST RISK ARE REALLY WORKERS WHO TEND TO BE LOW WAGE, WHO TEND TO BE RACIALIZED, AND ARE IN WORKPLACES WHERE IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO SOCIAL DISTANCE. SO WE'RE TALKING ABOUT WAREHOUSES, YOU KNOW, WE'RE SEEING WAREHOUSES PROCESSING, FOR EXAMPLE, AMAZON WAREHOUSES PROCESSING ALL THESE ORDERS THAT PEOPLE ARE DOING ONLINE BECAUSE THEY DON'T WANT TO GO OUT SHOPPING. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN AS A WHOLE, REALLY. WE'VE SEEN A TERRIBLE OUTBREAK IN THE MEAT PROCESSING PLANTS OUT IN ALBERTA. WE'VE SEEN SOME CASES AT MEAT PROCESSORS HERE IN ONTARIO AS WELL. AND WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE PEOPLE ACTUALLY PICKING OUR FOOD, MIGRANT WORKERS. THERE WAS A SIGNIFICANT OUTBREAK IN CHATHAM-KENT THIS WEEK AT A FARM THERE WHERE OVER 40 MIGRANT WORKERS WERE DIAGNOSED WITH THE VIRUS. AND, YOU KNOW, THERE, AGAIN, IT'S RELATED TO THE PRECARITY OF THE JOB IN A LOT OF CASES. YOU KNOW, WITH MIGRANT WORKERS, FOR EXAMPLE, THEY'RE OFTEN LIVING IN CRAMPED BUNKHOUSES. I'VE SEEN, YOU KNOW, BUNKHOUSES MYSELF WHERE THERE'S, YOU KNOW, UP TO A HUNDRED BEDS IN A SINGLE HOUSE. IMAGINE THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF SOCIAL DISTANCING IN THAT KIND OF ENVIRONMENT. AND OF COURSE HEALTH CARE WORKERS. THAT'S ONE THAT WE ARE AT LEAST GETTING SOME DATA ON AND THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS PUBLISHING THE RATE AT WHICH THESE WORKERS ARE BEING DIAGNOSED WITH COVID. SO, YOU KNOW, I THINK ALL OF THOSE PROFESSIONS HAVE A SORT OF THROUGH-LINE WHICH IS IN MANY CASES THE WORK IS QUITE PRECARIOUS.

The caption changes to "Producer: Patricia Kozicka, @TrishKozicka."

Steve says UNDERSTOOD. THAT'S SARA MOJTEHEDZADEH, WHO IS THE WORK AND WEALTH REPORTER AT THE TORONTO STAR AND WE'RE GRATEFUL YOU COULD SPARE SOME TIME FOR US ON TVO TONIGHT. THANKS, SARA.

Sara says THANK YOU.

Watch: Work Concerns During the Pandemic