‘Cautiously optimistic’: Immigrant drivers rate B.C. plan to protect gig workers - New Canadian Media
Gig worker Saran Walia believes that the B.C. government's decision to set a minimum wage for drivers will have a positive impact on their earnings. (Photo by Hamid Jafari / New Canadian Media)

‘Cautiously optimistic’: Immigrant drivers rate B.C. plan to protect gig workers

The province’s introduction of minimum wage and job protections for B.C.’s gig workers, many of them immigrants, is raising questions about equity in the gig economy.

Rishu Bajaj immigrated to British Columbia nine years ago and has been driving for Uber since January 2023. This past summer was a busy season for him, he said, but as winter arrived, demand slowed significantly.

“Some days I feel like I’m not even making minimum wage,” a rate of $16.75 per hour in B.C. that is available for other jobs, Bajaj added.

In the dynamic landscape of B.C.’s gig economy, a labour market that hires workers for short-term contracts and freelance jobs, the provincial government recently proposed a minimum wage and job protections for gig workers, many of them immigrants to Canada.

A January report from Statistics Canada found about 79,000 Canadians provided taxi or rideshare services through online platforms or applications from December 2021 to December 2022, while approximately 207,000 had provided delivery services for food or other goods.

The report identified more than half of those drivers (55.7 per cent) as landed immigrants.

For Bajaj, who said he works about 30 hours per week to earn roughly $500 to $600 over the same period, a minimum wage represents a “huge step” for gig drivers. 

Under the B.C government’s proposed changes, gig drivers would earn $20.10 per hour (120 per cent of the province’s general minimum wage) while transporting. The new employment standards will also provide drivers with destination information before they accept trips, workers compensation coverage through WorkSafeBC — an independent provincial agency that supports injured workers — and tip protections among others.

‘A more vulnerable group of workers’

Over the summer, Bajaj said he worked more often for about 40 to 50 hours each week. Driving for Uber initially appealed to him for the flexible schedule, which allows him to choose his own hours. But the nature of that gig work can be a double-edged sword, Bajaj explained, since earnings aren’t as steady as traditional jobs with regular paychecks, raising potential concerns around loan or mortgage eligibility.

“I am thinking at least I’m getting enough surety if I drive for 10 hours (a day)” Bajaj said, adding that while he is happy with the prospect of new employment standards, he and other drivers look forward to seeing them in practice. “Everybody is excited, but they want to check if this is giving us benefits.”

While legislation for the changes (Bill 48, the Labour Statutes Amendment Act) became law on Friday, B.C.’s government has said the employment standards and protections will take effect after regulations are developed and companies have had time to adapt to the new requirements. B.C. Labour Minister Harry Baines told the Canadian Press in November that he expects the regulations to be finalized in early 2024.

Mohsen Javdani is an associate professor of economics in the School of Public Policy, as well as the urban studies program, at Simon Fraser University. (Photo by Hamid Jafari / New Canadian Media)

Mohsen Javdani, an associate professor of economics at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy in Vancouver, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the new measures, which would have been beneficial if introduced earlier.

“There is an imbalance of power between the employers and drivers in this case,” Javdani said. “I’m less concerned about the companies because they are making significant profits. The important question is, how does it contribute to improving the quality of life for more vulnerable individuals who use these online platforms?”

In 2020, Statistics Canada reported that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, visible minority groups were more likely to live in poverty than white people, and 44 per cent of hate crimes were motivated by hatred of race or ethnicity.

Most of Javadani’s research is related to inequalities experienced by marginalized groups in the labour market. He emphasized that many drivers are immigrants, and for a province such as B.C., which welcomes many newcomers to Canada, it’s important that gig workers enjoy the same employment protections as others.

“Especially because we are dealing with a more vulnerable group of workers,” Javdani added. “We still need to wait and see exactly how this will work.”

‘We don’t earn much money in an hour’

Saran Walia, a full-time Uber driver in Vancouver, told New Canadian Media that he has already received an email notification from the company about the coming changes. Like Bajaj, he believes a minimum wage for gig workers will have a positive effect on driver earnings.

When Walia started driving for the ride-hailing service three years ago, his days were busy with plenty of fares and he was happy with the job, he said.

“But right now it’s totally different,” Walia added. “Sometimes we have to wait a long time, and we don’t earn much money in an hour.”

Javdani flagged the downtime between rides as a gap that needs to be addressed. The minimum wage proposed for gig drivers will only apply to “engaged time,” or time spent completing assignments — not the waiting period between trips — hence the 20 per cent premium, B.C.’s government said.

“Do we pay people who work in restaurants or in a coffee shop based on the engagement time? No,” Javdani said, also acknowledging that the waiting periods between tasks can add complexities to a minimum wage for gig workers. ”(Gig) workers are still not entitled to vacation pay or sick leave, and those benefits that all employees are entitled to under employment standards do not apply to workers who work for these platforms.”

B.C.’s government has said paid leave, hours of work, annual vacation, statutory holidays and overtime for gig workers “will not be established at this time” in the changes to the Employment Standards Act, but added that the province “will continue to monitor these areas.”

According to B.C.’s government, 21 ride-hailing companies are licensed to operate in B.C., including multinational companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as locally operated companies such as Coastal Rides and Whistle. The province estimates about 11,000 ride-hailing drivers and 27,000 food-delivery workers are operating in B.C.

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A Vancouver B.C based journalist who writes about the Iranian community in Canada, art, culture and social media trends.

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