Mega-corporations like Amazon are built on “independent contractors”. It’s a classification of worker that lets companies maximize the benefits they extract from employees—their output; services or manufactured products—without legally employing people. And without employees, a company doesn’t have to worry about their health, labour rights, or liabilities.
If an independent contractor driving an Amazon Prime delivery truck hits you when you’re crossing an intersection, you’ll have a hard time successfully suing Amazon for that driver’s recklessness. That’s because the driver is not employed by Amazon. As a recent Buzzfeed investigation revealed, despite the fact that that driver was likely trained by Amazon, rents their vehicle from Amazon, and sees their daily output tracked by Amazon monitoring technology, the driver still (somehow) remains an independent contractor. If you want to talk about medical bills, you’re going to have to take it up with the driver or the subcontractor that actually employees them. Amazon’s not responsible.
The independent contractor—it’s a beautiful invention of the free market that’s gained booming popularity among tech giants thriving in the golden era of late-stage capitalism.
And yet the B.C. Federation of Labour isn’t crazy about it.
In a letter dated September 24 and shared publicly today (October 1), the workers-rights organization outlined its concerns for Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services, and these companies’ reliance on independent contractors to drive the vehicles that comprise their transportation services.
“Workers driving for ride-hailing businesses typically face low wages and zero workplace protections,” said B.C. Fed president Laird Cronk quoted in a media release that accompanies the letter. “B.C. has one chance to establish a fair system. It’s up to the provincial government and the PTB [Passenger Transportation Board] to do what’s right: ensure ride-hailing drivers are classified as employees and have minimum labour protections.”
The letter begins with suggestions that the B.C. Fed argues are required to maintain existing labour conditions in the province.
“We call on the PTB to require applicants, including Uber and Lyft, to disclose whether their drivers will be considered independent contractors or employees,” it reads. “We encourage the PTB to consider, in their assessment of applicants, how drivers will be classified, to ensure workers have the protection of minimum labour standards under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), Workers Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Regulation.”
Uber, Lyft, and other companies can apply for a new classification of licence to operate in B.C. as of September 3.
Drivers intending to work for one of those corporations (as independent contractors, of course) will have a tougher time doing so than residents of most other jurisdictions, however. They’ll have to obtain a Class 4 licence and undergo criminal-records and driver-records checks before picking anyone up as a paying passenger.
UberX (the transport service that most people just call "Uber") has been available in other North American cities since 2012.
The B.C. Fed represents some 500,000 members of B.C. labour unions working in every sector of the province’s economy. Its letter goes on to discuss less-than-beneficial contributions that companies like Uber and Lyft have made in other jurisdictions where they operate.
“There is growing evidence in the United States that the arrival of ride-hailing has led to significant declines (53%) in the earnings of drivers in the transportation,” it reads. “Relatedly, other studies show that Uber drivers earn comparably low-wages and have limited access to benefits, and that Uber and Lyft drivers struggle to reach even a minimum-wage equivalent income.
“To understand the potential negative impact on the quality of jobs in B.C.’s transportation sector, the PTB must contend with how companies like Uber and Lyft misclassify their employees as independent contractors elsewhere,” the letter continues. “By insisting their drivers are not employees (and lobbying governments aggressively to that effect), companies like Uber and Lyft are able to avoid meeting minimum labour standards for wages, benefits and safety.”