Skip the Dishes: Poster child for precarious work
Photo by Alex Tétreault
In March of this year, Winnipeg-based food delivery company SkipTheDishes came under fire for cancelling the second interview of a prospective employee after she asked about wages and benefits. “If I do end up filling this position,” wrote Taylor Byrnes in an email to the startup’s talent-acquisition co-ordinator, “how much do you think I’ll be getting paid an hour?”
The response she received was abrupt: “Your questions reveal that your priorities are not in sync with those of SkipTheDishes. At this time we will not be following through with our [second] meeting.”
The manager quickly replied with another message, explaining that SkipTheDishes believes in “hard work and perseverance in pursuit of company goals as opposed to focusing on compensation.” (emphasis mine)
It wasn’t long before Byrnes’ went to Twitter with a screenshot of the email exchange, prompting an apology from SkipTheDishes co-founder and CEO Joshua Simair. He insisted the email was anathema to the company’s approach and values, and that he was disappointed in how the situation was handled.
“We’ve addressed the email internally and will be providing additional training. We are very committed to our community, employees and continuing to grow and create employment opportunities in the Prairies,” he said in a statement.
Though it would dissipate after some brief media attention, the controversy exposed the bleak underbelly of the so-called “sharing” or “gig” economy, a system in which companies use the internet to connect independent contractors to customers. It is just the latest iteration of a global pushback on young workers in which secure, formal-sector jobs are being replaced by low-paying, part-time or casualized “gigs” with little to no room for advancement.
The systemic challenges this poses to labour are vast and unwieldy. The rise of the “on-demand” economy — once described by Republican Senator Marco Rubio as “a miracle that only American free enterprise could produce” — fortifies the perception (and reality) that there is no future for the next generation beyond ultra-precarious, contingent forms of work; a brave new, app-powered world where big data drives de-skilling and where exploitation is unassailable.
SkipTheDishes allows customers to order takeout from local restaurants using its website or mobile app. It retains a crew of drivers to deliver orders, along with a (significantly smaller) operations staff consisting of brand managers, sales associates, graphic designers and software developers. The company currently operates in 14 Canadian cities, mostly in Western Canada, and six others in the U.S. Midwest. In December 2016, it was purchased by London-based Just Eat for $110 million.
Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB); Facebook.
No wage, no benefits
Canada’s online food delivery market is worth about $2.5 billion a year. SkipTheDishes is expected to generate more than $23.5 million by the end of 2017.
The startup has even benefited from public funds. In late 2015, the government of Manitoba pledged up to $5.5 million to subsidize the training of 550 new employees — a large percentage of them drivers and call-centre workers — at its Winnipeg office. A grant worth $3 million was also promised in 2016 by then-Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall. It was later cancelled after officials from the province’s Ministry of the Economy found the company wasn’t meeting “hiring and space acquisition conditions set out in the contract.”
Despite remarkable financial success, SkipTheDishes continues to preserve a labour pool of drivers in the “flexible” model of “short-termism.” These frontline workers are paid no hourly wage and receive no benefits. Earning between $4 and $7 per delivery, they are not compensated for fuel, vehicle maintenance or repair, and absorb all costs for insurance, parking fees, and idle time between orders. In effect, the company transfers all risk on to its contractors.
A visit to Glassdoor.ca, a popular job-recruiting website, offers dozens of pieces of testimony from current and former drivers. “Pay is just above minimum wage and [the] job is very repetitive with limited room for growth,” reads one. Others note the infrequency of tips (customers already pay a built-in delivery fee and rarely add gratuity for couriers) and the instability of contract-based work without guaranteed salary or benefits. “How can anyone be expected to live on this kind of pay?” asked one former driver. Among the statements, however, one stood out:
This company epitomizes everything that is wrong with the sharing economy…. Couriers pay for out of pocket cash orders and are not compensated for gas costs, vehicle depreciation costs, maintenance and repair costs, parking fees, commercial insurance costs, travel time to restaurant, waiting costs and idle time between jobs…. It preys on those that need work. Advertising comes across as a way to make good money, nothing could be farther from the truth. You will be lucky to make minimum wage or less.
More than a third of Canadians under 29 are now in some form of temporary work. According to some estimates, nearly 40% of all U.S. workers will be classed as “independent” by 2020; anchored to non-standard, insecure or contingent jobs.
Throughout North America, decentralized systems of distributed labour are expanding everywhere, threatening employment standards for millions of young people. For food delivery startups like SkipTheDishes, the speed of data-driven systems and algorithms are central to their technological edge. Some measures, like improving the efficiency of GPS navigation to guide drivers, are aimed at eliminating non-value added work. In this way, datadriven innovation resembles a contemporary form of Taylorism; the theory of scientific management which governed manufacturing industries throughout much of the 20th century.
Technology, including the parallel development of social networks, is a key driver and booster for the corporate sharing economy, sometimes called “platform capitalism.” Given the advances in communications technology over the past decade, the dilemma imposed by the increase in capital’s spatial expansion is visible as never before. The “greater annihilation of space by time” is manifest in the decentralized management of workers via sophisticated computer systems. “Digital Taylorism” is synonymous with the evils of extracting maximum value from workers. It’s defined by features such as algorithmic performance management, intricate monitoring softwares and always-on devices.
In the words of Steven Hill, author of Raw Deal: How the Uber Economy and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers, “the current startup model destroys the social connection between businesses and those they employ, and these companies have failed to thrive because they provide crummy jobs that most people only want to do as a very last resort. These platforms show their workforce no allegiance or loyalty, and they engender none in return.”
Apps are potentially powerful tools in the production and consumption of goods and services. Yet for activists, the labour movement, and workers themselves, it is the actual production that matters most. Without its drivers, web-based companies like SkipTheDishes would exist only in cyberspace. The men and women who race around urban areas, catering to those on a regular 9-to-5 schedule, are the engine that keeps the digital infrastructure afloat.
Technology is outpacing the ability of governments and civil society to respond to the logic of the corporate sharing economy. Digital labour brokers like SkipTheDishes are the new rentiers of the postmodern capitalist class. What’s needed is effective regulation to strengthen workers’ rights, impose standards governing base pay, and ensure basic health and safety for all contractors. Another avenue is platform cooperativism, where web-based services are democratically governed and owned by workers. These concepts hold a lot of potential to connect, for example, local tradespeople with customers, but will have difficulty competing with bigger transnational companies like SkipTheDishes or Uber, the globally popular ride-sharing service.
What is certain is that low pay and instability keeps workers wondering if there isn’t a better deal somewhere else.
Capitalism from the beginning has been driven by monopoly, efficiency and the elimination of expenditure. The digital job brokers of the sharing economy embody that same ethos. So while companies like SkipTheDishes suggest the inevitability of indentured digital labour, it’s up to the rest of us to organize and demand a future where technology and work are not needlessly contradictory terms.
Harrison Samphir is a writer and policy analyst based in Ottawa. His work has appeared in CBC, the Huffington Post, rabble.ca, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. He has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.