Montreal resident Matthew Olsen says freelance writing was how he made a living when he was in school. But while the work kept him afloat for three years, it was only a matter of time before he would be forced to leave.
Managers from his digital platform of choice, which is based in the United States, didn’t consistently communicate what was expected of him and other regular contractors, he said, adding they often brought in frequent changes in pay schedules, leaving them without a stable paycheque.
And what’s worse, Olsen said, is that he felt as though he had no one he could turn to for help.
“I can look online as much as I can, but it’s still really difficult to find out what protections you have,” Olsen, 25, said.
He’s part of a growing subset of Canadian workers who are considered contractors, freelancers and gig workers — all with untraditional employer-employee arrangements and often little to no worker protections. The federal government says about 10 per cent of Canadian workers were classified as gig workers in 2020, up from 5.5 per cent in 2005.
Advocates and workers like Olsen say more protections, and greater awareness and enforcement are needed to uphold the rights of the growing number of Canadians doing this type of work as it continues to become more widespread.
“More and more Canadians are going to end up in these types of situations,” said Olsen, who now does contract work as a painter and enjoys talking to his boss “face to face,” as well as more regular shifts.
“Without proper knowledge and education about their rights and about the way that these businesses have to treat their employees or contractors, it’s only going to result in more people who have bad situations.”
Where do workers go for help?
Lindsay Zier-Vogel, a Toronto-based freelance grant writer and author, said she’s been regularly accepting clients since 2020. While most have paid, she said there have been a handful of times when clients became “vitriolic” when a grant application wasn’t successful — and even failed to pay her entirely.
After posting about the ordeal on Twitter, she said a representative of the Canadian Freelance Union reached out to offer support. If the person hadn’t made themselves known, Zier-Vogel said, she would have taken the hit and lost out on the time spent and the hundreds of dollars in wages.
“It’s really exhausting, and I just don’t have the resources to be chasing the money,” she said.
Nora Loreto, president of the union, said it’s common for these type of workers to eat the cost of their labour instead of trying to chase after what’s owed — which can mean doing anything from badgering clients for payment to taking them to small claims court. That might especially be the case for those with clients and contractors based overseas, or who have no assets in the country.
That’s why the union, which has about 200 members, is trying to boost its profile so people will know it exists, Loreto said. It wants to not only help settle disputes between freelancers and their clients, but put an end to job misclassification, where workers are wrongly classified as contractors when they should be seen as employees.
Loreto said a union that can “go to bat” for these workers is especially needed at a time when layoffs abound in industries that use freelance workers, such as in media, communications and creative sectors.
“It means that there’s a lot more people who are working freelance, there’s a lot fewer people who are on salary, there’s a lot fewer people who have health benefits and who have job stability,” Loreto said.
“But we can’t do it alone. I mean, this is where we need really strong labour laws and we need stronger enforcement mechanisms and, frankly, we need an end to misclassification.”
Unions can help strengthen advocacy: lawyer
Canadian provinces have long struggled with defining and outlining the different types of workers, said Michael Lynk, an associate law professor who specializes in labour at Western University in London, Ont.
The federal government is currently deliberating over years worth of consultations with people in the labour sector on plans to implement more protections for gig workers. CBC News reached out to Employment and Social Development Canada for comment, but a reply wasn’t received in time for publication.
Lynk said that increasing labour law enforcement and making it easier for workers to organize are a start.
“We need to have probably stronger investigative powers going to employment standards offices in the provincial ministries or the federal ministries of labour across this country,” he said.
Additionally, Lynk said, creating an environment where unions are able to exist throughout the workforce can balance the “lopsided seesaw” that’s currently in place between employers and employees, both in the gig and freelance economy and beyond.
“In this … economy, employees really only have rights that are measurable by their collective voice as opposed to their scattered individual voices,” he said.
Lynk said while the federal government has jurisdiction over about 10 to 12 per cent of the workforce in Canada, he’s hopeful it will be able to influence change in the provinces.
“The law is really basically playing checkers when corporations, through the use of technology, are playing chess,” he said.