Toronto’s ‘gig economy’ fueled by young workers starved for choice

A new survey by the CCPA takes the first look at who is working through online platforms in the GTA

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In the sound and fury of debates over the rise of businesses like Uber, one question is often drowned out: who, exactly, is behind the wheel — and why?

Now, the first comprehensive Canadian study on the topic provides some answers: the people powering Toronto’s so-called “gig economy” are young, educated, and reliant on “on-demand” jobs because they feel there is no other way to earn a living.

A new study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives finds the vast majority of those providing services in the GTA through online platforms felt broadly positive about their work. But 55 per cent said they participate in the sector because there are no other options, and almost the same proportion called the jobs “something to do until they can find something better.”

“Clearly this is an important part of these young workers’ incomes and really pointed out to us the kind of precarious and difficult labour market that young educated workers are experiencing in Toronto,” said economist Sheila Block, who helped compile the study.

“What that’s telling me is that trying to survive in Toronto requires pulling together a large number of gigs. What we know about these jobs is that they are very precarious,” she added.

The rise of the gig economy, also known as the sharing economy, has polarized public conversation. There are those who see it as an innovative pipeline of convenient jobs for entrepreneurial workers — in the words of Uber, for example, it’s a “flexible opportunity” that “comes with many benefits including control over when and where they want to work.”

Others argue that the sector is taking advantage of cheap labour strategies — and workers who have few options in a precarious job market. Over 60 per cent of the workers surveyed by the CCPA said they engaged in the gig economy because they like it — but rather than a stopgap or supplemental form of income, almost half said they had spent more than a year in such jobs. Some 58 per cent said they relied on the sector for at least half their personal income.

Although most workers surveyed in the GTA were young and college- or university-educated, the majority also had families. Some 41 per cent expressed concern over inadequate pay, which was the biggest single complaint, while 37 per cent said it was hard to get enough work.

University of Toronto graduate Katya Ryabova, 28, who used to offer freelance copy editing services through online platforms, says those stats mirror her experience with the gig economy — which she eventually left to start her own social media marketing company because it offered more stability.

“My feeling is actually generally negative because I’ve been giving it a lot of consideration from the point of view of precarious employment,” she said. “It does help people who genuinely want to supplement their income. But for a lot of other people, that ends up being the only way they can make money.

“If our image of someone working in the gig economy is a young man paying off his fancy car, that doesn’t actually mesh with the data,” Block added.

The study showed those employed in the sector were more likely to be racialized and lower income than the people who use their services — and revealed enthusiasm for greater regulation of the sector from workers and consumers alike.

Under Ontario law, gig economy workers are not eligible for rights like minimum wage and overtime pay protections because they are defined as independent contractors, not employees. A full 78 per cent of respondents to the CCPA survey said they wanted more health and safety protections and 65 per cent said they supported better worker protections.

“Absolutely (these jobs) are providing opportunity,” she said. “What we need to do is get together as a society and have government regulate the minimum conditions here,” Block said.

“With any new form of economic activity, we need to figure out how to regulate it in the interest of everyone involved.”

Of the roughly 2,300 GTA residents surveyed, around one in 10 had worked in the gig economy at some point. Block called that figure small but significant — roughly equivalent to the percentage of people currently employed in the province’s manufacturing industry. Her research, conducted with CCPA Ontario director Trish Hennessy, identified 100 different businesses offerings services through online platforms in the region.

“We need legislators to look beyond Uber and Airbnb,” said Block.

Fixes, Block added, could include measures like expanding the definition of an employee to include those in new forms of work — meaning people currently classified as “independent contractors” could still access some minimum protections on the job.

Such options are currently being considered as part of the provincial government’s so-called Changing Workplaces Review, which aims to update Ontario’s outdated employment laws to better reflect a changing economy.

“I think these survey results show us is that young people very much like flexibility — but they also want to make enough money, they want to have some predictability in their schedules, and they want to get paid when they’re sick,” she said.

“I think what we should be looking for is something that combines those things.”

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

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