06/26/2019 15:56 EDT | Updated 06/26/2019 15:56 EDT

Toronto Uber Drivers Unionized. Here's What They're Fighting For.

They want Uber to recognize them as employees.

Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada
Jimmy Irfn and Ejaz Butt are among the hundreds of Toronto Uber drivers who've unionized to fight for better pay and protection.

Toronto Uber drivers have joined their counterparts across North America to fight for the ride-hailing giant to recognize them as employees with rights.  

Hundreds of drivers have signed up with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, said representative Pablo Godoy at a news conference Wednesday. He wouldn’t say exactly how many, but that it was “in the high hundreds” with more joining every day. 

Uber drivers are demanding a minimum wage, end to the rating system, and adherence to employment laws.

Uber did not respond to a request for comment.  

Companies like Uber cannot be allowed to move back the dial on employment practices under the guise of innovation.Paul Meinema, UFCW

There are currently more than 90,000 Toronto drivers working for private transportation companies (including Uber and Lyft), according to the city. That’s up from 30,000 in 2016. 

Jimmy Irfn, 40, signed up to drive for Uber about four years ago, but following a recent slow week — he drove more than 60 hours and earned less than $300 — decided it was time to push the company for fairer wages. 

“I signed up because Uber is a good model, but it has to understand if I am enjoying it, I am giving great services to the customer, and it has a responsibility to pay me accordingly,” Ifrn told HuffPost Canada.

Supporting his wife and seven-year-old child, Ifrn said getting the company to recognize him as an employee is crucial to his family’s well-being. “We need Uber to listen to us because we are working so hard for them, bringing revenue to their company.” 

He said he faces the constant pressure of pleasing clients in order to get a good rating. If drivers get bad ratings, they can be suspended from Uber without recourse. 

Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada
Dozens of Uber drivers gathered for a news conference in Toronto June 26, 2019, to share their decision to unionize.

Ejaz Butt also drives for Uber in Toronto. He said he and his fellow drivers put their health and safety at risk daily to make customers happy. That includes not taking breaks, driving dangerously, and fulfilling unreasonable, unsafe and even illegal requests.

“We are pushed to meet an impossible standard of excellence, or we are at risk of losing our Uber accounts and putting our livelihoods in jeopardy,” Butt told reporters. 

Uber classifies drivers as independent contractors, not employees, meaning they aren’t subject to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, or entitled to minimum wage, vacation days, or mandatory breaks. It also means they can’t technically be certified as a union local, but UFCW said it will advocate for drivers regardless in what will likely be a long process. 

It will urge governments to change legislation to recognize Uber drivers as employees, and invite the ride-hailing company to enter discussions to address their concerns, Godoy said. 

Samantha Beattie/HuffPost Canada
Pablo Godoy, a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said that even though under current legislation Uber drivers cannot form an official local, the union is prepared to fight for their rights.

“It’s important that we as a union and labour movement, that legislators and policymakers take a proactive approach to respond to this disruptive technology that’s really challenging traditional frameworks of representation,” said Godoy at the news conference. “We’re trying to do something different and taking a stand in supporting workers who have been legislated out of receiving any protections.” 

Progress across North America has been mixed. 

As of 2015, Seattle, Wash. allows Uber drivers to unionize, but faces ongoing legal challenges from Uber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Late last year, New York City passed a new rule that guarantees Uber drivers, who have unionized, a minimum pay rate

In January 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in favour of proceeding with an Uber driver’s class-action lawsuit, which demands drivers be classified as employees. Uber had fought the lawsuit, arguing its drivers have to go through a third-party arbitrator, rather than the courts, to have legal claims addressed. The panel of judges all agreed that requirement would be illegal and unfair.

In California earlier this month, Uber and Lyft began a public campaign to compel the state to exempt them from legislation that would classify drivers as employees. The legislation is currently moving through the senate. 

Right now, the City of Toronto is considering adding more rules to its taxi and ride sharing licensing, including driver training. 

“Uber is an employer, drivers are employees and the technology is just a management tool. It’s not an escape hatch from being a decent employer,” said Paul Meinema, UFCW’s national president at the news conference.

“Companies like Uber cannot be allowed to move back the dial on employment practices under the guise of innovation.” 

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