Uber driver hopes Supreme Court ruling will help change labour laws for gig workers

Uber driver Earla Phillips says she hopes Friday’s Supreme Court ruling against her employer will pave the way for changes to Canada’s labour laws.

The Supreme Court of Canada has shut down Uber’s latest bid to block a proposed class action suit that would provide its drivers with a minimum wage, vacation pay and other protections.

The company had argued that Canadian courts couldn’t even hear the case because its agreement with drivers stipulates that disputes with Uber have to be resolved by an arbitrator in the Netherlands at a cost to the driver of about $14,500 US.

But Canada’s top court disagreed with Uber, setting the stage for what could be a $400-million suit.

Phillips, who has been an Uber driver for five years, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation. 

As far as what you were looking for, how close does this come to a victory for you?

It’s absolutely a victory to have the arbitration clauses struck down as unfair, unconscionable, unenforceable, because that meant that we had no avenue to pursue any injustices or unfair practices.

Give us a sense of what you’re trying to achieve, not just with this court case, but in general. What are you pursuing for Uber drivers?

There’s a mixed bag of what people want. I personally don’t want to be classified as an employee, but I’m not an actual independent contractor. So I’m looking for, you know, laws to change to a middle ground. 

There has to be an update to labour law to accommodate or to reflect the new reality of the labour market. We’re actually stuck in between [being classified as] an employee and an independent contractor.

And so what would victory look like? What would you need to get in order to say that you had achieved what you wanted out of this?

This is a step in the right direction — having [the] arbitration clause removed and … for things to proceed toward changes in labour law. 

There is a group of people just like me who feel the same way. 

There are still people who believe that we should be left alone as independent contractors. 

And, of course, there are people that want to be classified as employees. 

But [I want] some sort of change to acknowledge that there are dependent contractors out there … who have no rights as workers. 

What would that be?

In the case of gig workers, we have no rights, no way to address injustices or unfair treatment. We have no way to negotiate fair pay. 

A lot of Uber drivers are unfairly deactivated for unsubstantiated complaints and have no recourse in standing up and proving that they’re innocent. I myself have … had false claims made against me. And unfortunately, a lot of drivers get deactivated.

That’s not to say that there aren’t drivers out there that are behaving inappropriately — because there are — but we have no recourse. So being able to address that kind of thing without having to go to the Netherlands, would, you know, definitely be one of the things that most of us would want.

This is the gist of this Supreme Court decision, isn’t it? You had to resolve issues [with] an arbitrator in the Netherlands in order to achieve anything. That would cost a driver about $14,500 [US] to actually pursue Uber into those courts? Is that right?

Correct. But the history of Uber and those arbitration cases shows that they do not even take them to arbitration. They sit and sit and sit.

Ealra Phillips has been an Uber driver for five years. (Submitted by Earla Phillips)

Some of the drivers are seeking basically minimum wage and vacation pay. They want to be treated as employees and not as contract workers. Do you know many drivers who are in that position?

There are plenty.

For instance, in the case of the Uber Black drivers who have signed up to join [United Food and Commercial Workers] or [Canadian Union of Public Employees], they want $15 an hour. 

I personally think it’s insane, but these guys drive, you know, $100,000 vehicles and they want $15 an hour. They’re worth a whole lot more than minimum wage. What about your expenses? What about everything else?

Limousine drivers like the [Uber] Black drivers, they deserve a lot more than minimum wage.

But the conditions under which these drivers are working. Just in your own case, what’s it like? What does it cost you? How difficult is it to make a living?

Here in Toronto … it can be difficult. The city has not taken any kind of … responsibility for controlling the number of drivers that can be licensed to hit the roads. 

And there is well over 100,000 [private transportation company] licensed drivers. Now that, granted, includes people with dual licenses like me, driving for two companies, but there’s no control over how many of us can be out there. 

So there are plenty of times, like, for instance, pre-COVID, where you could be out there for eight hours and, you know, [earn a] gross revenue of $50 if you were lucky because there’s too many drivers on the road.

Do you think that this is the beginning of changes for not just for Uber drivers, but for this area of what we call the gig economy?

It’s definitely a step in that direction.

Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Kevin Robertson. Edited for length and clarity. 

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