The Pandemic and the Platform Workforce
Opinion by Michael Thomas Kowalsky, B.A., LL.M. candidate at UQÀM
(La version française de cet article se trouve ici)
A whirlwind of dangerous health risks surrounds the province at this moment and laboratory researchers are scrambling to discover a cure for the novel Coronavirus. Many people find themselves isolated at home and their only physical connection to the outside world is home-delivery through services such as Canada Post and Foodora.
Thrust to the front line of the epidemic are deliverers and couriers, oft overlooked and neglected in the consumer’s understanding of third-party transactions. Along with a list of other industries, food delivery workers were declared an essential service by Premier François Legault on March 24th. This declaration underlines the sometimes forgotten but crucial role bicycle couriers have in the logistics chain.
Bicycle couriers are independent contractors of digital platform companies, receiving delivery orders through a computer algorithm on their smartphones. Pizza and chow mein delivery have been available for generations, but newly ubiquitous to the urban landscape are bicycle food couriers, whizzing through congestion shuttling your shish taouk or fresh salad in brightly coloured bulky rucksacks. And because increasing numbers of consumers are either unable or unwilling to cook, food delivery is more popular than ever.
Although these couriers provide an essential and popular service, they receive few protections from the law or from their employers.
The courier industry has been predatory and under-regulated for decades (Downey 2002, Kidder 2011). Courier companies systematically skirt around labour regulations intended to protect the health, safety and economic well-being of the worker (Cant 2020). The companies that hire them rarely perform bicycle inspections or training for new employees, nor do they provide safety lights or helmets. It is no surprise that they do not supply safety equipment like masks and gloves to their couriers in the present pandemic.
Under current circumstances, food couriers find themselves in high demand and are in a better negotiating position to gain access to collective rights and additional social programs. It remains to be seen what changes will come about as a result of couriers being recognized as essential workers. In the meantime, they shall continue to deliver the merchandise like Jolly Ol’ St. Nick and keep everybody from ‘going postal’.
Cant, Callum, Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020).
Downey, Gregory J., Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850–1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002).
Kidder, Jeffery L., Urban Flow: Messengers and the City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).