Iván Ostos is a food courier and labour organizer
When Covid hit, food couriers like myself were anointed “essential workers.” After years of drudgery, we were suddenly heroes on the front lines, making sure your McDonald’s made it from the minimum-wage earner’s gloves to your condo door while you Netflix and chilled. We were getting more respect from customers, restaurant workers and drivers on the road, but it was a token gesture. We still weren’t receiving the protections we require from delivery companies.
Food-delivery apps consider couriers to be independent contractors, and as such, they don’t have to contribute to our pensions or employment insurance, or compensate us if a sudden economic collapse nullifies their business. If we’re sick, we stay home on our own dime. In exchange, we supposedly receive freedom and flexibility. But this is a ruse. I don’t get to work when I please—people order food at lunch and dinner times, and if I want to make the most of my time, that’s when I work.
Covid has exposed the fragilities in the system. During the pandemic, I received regular financial incentives from delivery companies to go out and deliver food. Couriers were among the few workers outside, travelling between restaurants and condos across the city, putting ourselves at huge risk.
As the people who make food delivery happen, couriers must be the ones to reform the industry. We need to rewrite the rules to give gig workers the same protections as everyone else. We should be the ones to control delivery platforms—not wealthy stakeholders in Berlin or San Francisco. We have built our own network through union organizing. We know the industry best, and can work with restaurants to design a superior platform.
What I’m proposing is a multi-stakeholder worker co-op—a delivery platform, like DoorDash or Uber Eats, but run by couriers and restaurant owners. Stakeholders would be involved in hiring, management, scheduling and compensation, and they’d receive benefits and insurance by paying into WSIB. Workers and restaurateurs would all have a stake in how the platform operates, incentivizing them to give each other better service and divide revenue fairly. No longer will restaurants have to face 30 per cent commission on each delivery, just so they can give their pizza to a slow driver who will carry it in a backpack through midwinter temperatures. Couriers’ stakes will motivate us to have higher delivery standards because our financial well-being will be in our own control, not at the whim of an algorithm.
The new platform would also motivate existing delivery apps to improve their service. Right now, these companies don’t have much reason to build good relationships with restaurants because they know those businesses can’t scrape by without them. With a worker-run app offering better rates and service, the existing apps would be pressured to step up their games.
Co-ops also give workers the kind of economic security they’d never get from a multinational corporation, where there’s always a danger the company will leave for greener pastures. In April, when Foodora Canada suddenly announced it was filing for bankruptcy and gave two weeks’ notice to its partners, many couriers and restaurateurs opted not to deliver or prepare food because they didn’t think the company would pay up. Under a co-operative model, both workers and restaurants have a stake in operating where they live. They want long-term economic security, not quick returns on investments, so they have stronger interest in a business plan that will be able to function and make money for years to come.
And for the customers? In the long run, larger orders will be more affordable while smaller ones will be less so. Currently, food-delivery apps can only afford to deliver your $2 coffee because of investor money. It is fundamentally unsustainable. A co-op model will only deliver orders that are financially viable, as opposed to trying to quickly dominate a market with cheap delivery promotions. By sticking to viable revenue, the market may shrink—your late-night 7-Eleven run won’t be worth its delivery costs unless you order enough taquitos—but the business will last.
In the end, this force will fundamentally change the gig economy for the better. The labour movement understands that steps need to be taken to address the gig economy’s injustices. We can only keep whittling away at the corporate power entrenched in North America, creating not just a better app, but a better economy—one that serves us as well as investors.