This column is an opinion by Binyam Asress, a full-time Uber driver in Calgary who also posts content on Tiktok about his experiences with app-based work. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
There has been healthy debate around whether ride-hailing platforms should hire drivers as employees or keep interacting with them as independent contractors. This conversation came to a head recently when Uber rolled out the Flexible Work+ plan — a proposal to modernize app-based work in Canada, while preserving flexibility.
There have been some negative reactions to the proposal, with many critics saying that drivers and delivery people deserve employee status with benefits.
But take it from a driver working with Uber, this plan could be a game changer for drivers and delivery people on the app.
To start, it’s important to unpack the difference between employee and independent contractor.
Employees are on a schedule set by their employer, without much freedom to change things in their itinerary from day to day. They are obligated to attend to the interests of their employer during company time, even at the expense of demanding circumstances in their personal lives. An employee may get a call from a sick child or have an emergency involving an elderly parent, for example, but they must still fulfil their job requirements during a set shift. Even the most versatile of jobs has a start and end time, and a minimum number of hours to work.
Working with a ride-booking company as an independent contractor, by comparison, is being your own boss. There’s control over when, where and how long to work, while still facilitating other business opportunities or spending time with family.
For many drivers, having that independence and autonomy over their own schedule is a net positive, especially since many use it as part-time, temporary or seasonal work.
If the model were to change to mimic an employee setup, this would transform the very reason that drivers look to app-based work — to support a flexible lifestyle.
Why does flexibility matter?
Flexibility is a benefit in and of itself. Drivers and delivery people who work with Uber and other platforms choose when they go online, and which trips they accept or reject. For me, working with Uber was the first earning opportunity that provided for my family and allowed me control over my priority investments, like building my personal brand on social media.
In an Uber-commissioned Ipsos survey sent to 670 drivers in October 2020, 85 per cent of respondents said that they could not drive or deliver if it didn’t offer a flexible schedule. So while it may seem simple to give drivers an employee status and corresponding benefits, the reality is that this would also impose things like specified work hours that could limit the ability to work flexibly.
Under the proposed Flexible Work+ plan, drivers would be able to retain their independence and control, with the added protection of having a benefits fund that offers support for prescriptions, dental care, or things like tuition expenses.
The proposal is the first step in creating a better working opportunity for drivers, while protecting flexibility — the core tenet of app-based work.
This past year has been difficult for ride-booking drivers. It has created uncertainty and it has been hard to know the right times to be on the road, when most people are staying indoors. However, drivers have stepped up every day to help Canadians make essential trips, or deliver vital meals and items. This is the right time to find a solution that works to support these independent contractors.
The Flexible Work+ proposal is a welcome step, and one worth exploring if it means better benefits and protections for drivers.
Being an independent contractor isn’t perfect, or for everyone. There is room for improvement, and there is a way to combine flexibility with benefits to offer app-based workers a better future.