Why would Ontario let a company that lost $468 million last year seemingly help shape labour laws?

That’s what I asked as I watched a video, hard to distinguish from an ad for DoorDash, posted on Twitter on February 15 by Labour Minister Monte McNaughton. In the video, McNaughton sits in a car with Michael, a DoorDash courier, asking questions such as “What do you like best about being a Dasher?” Michael repeatedly adjusts a bright-red face mask with a DoorDash logo on it. The answers he provides, about how much he loves the flexibility of working for DoorDash, echo the talking points pushed by the company itself.

Watching Ontario’s labour minister appear to carry water for the third-party delivery industry — companies whose entire business model is based, in my opinion, on exploitative labour practices — was not just offensive: it frightened me for the future of work in the province. That fear was justified within two weeks, when Ontario announced plans for the Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act.

No gig worker should earn less than minimum wage,” said McNaughton, promoting proposed legislation that would prevent gig workers from earning minimum wage.

The “gig workers” (also known as independent contractors) who work for various delivery companies are excluded from the recent $15 minimum wage hike in Ontario. The DPWRA would require them to be paid minimum wage. However, it applies only during “active hours,” such as those in which workers are delivering food or carrying a passenger. Time spent waiting, for which they are not paid minimum wage, is estimated to make up 40 per cent of a driver’s shift, according to Toronto’s 2019 vehicle-for-hire impact report.

The DPWRA does address some of the most egregious complaints about gig work in Ontario — for example, Uber’s infamous terms of agreement, which required workers to take disputes to the Netherlands and pay up-front administrative fees of US$14,500. It also promises pay transparency, the right for workers to keep their tips, and written documentation of how and when tips are collected, how pay is calculated, and how job performance is judged.

Meanwhile, the language of the proposal could not be more clear about its shortcomings. “The purpose of the proposed new legislation would be to establish certain worker rights that would apply to all digital platform workers (as defined), regardless of the worker’s employment status,” reads a summary. “The proposed new legislation, if passed, would not affect or change whether those workers are covered (or not) by other work-related statutes.”

In other words, the authors of this legislation would like to state up top that it would in no way do what Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash hope to avoid: it won’t require them to classify and treat their workers as employees. The proposal avoids using common terms such as “gig worker” or even “independent contractor,” instead going with “digital platform worker” — another bit of doublespeak that obscures the basic reality that a company’s workforce is made up of employees.

Changing the law to define these workers as employees would obviate the need for any of these proposed changes. It would enshrine the rights of these workers along with those of everyone else.

That’s what California did in 2020, before a consortium of companies (including DoorDash, Uber, and Instacart) spent more than $200 million on Prop 22, a ballot initiative that successfully overturned the state’s law the very same year. Following the victory, Uber promised similar strategies everywhere. It’s already begun to roll them out. “Flexible Work+” is the campaign name for Uber’s attack on labour rights in Canada; it’s a proposal for industry-wide self-written regulation that would preclude the type of actual regulation it had to fend off in California. The argument we keep hearing from these companies and their proxies is that our labour laws were written in another time and should not apply to the innovative businesses creating exciting new opportunities that benefit consumers and workers.

That argument is nonsense. We all want the flexibility to work when we want. But we need the security of knowing we will earn enough to pay our bills. That’s why previous generations fought for existing labour laws. And it’s why we need legislators who are willing to defend our labour laws and the rights of workers. Instead, we have McNaughton and a proposed collection of new rules that make a big show of offering basic concessions for workers in exchange for protecting the bottom line and maintaining the status quo for “gig” employers.

We need legislators who won’t buy in to the idea that these businesses are “tech” companies.

I used to think this semantic distinction existed for legal reasons, to indemnify companies — clearly engaged in driving food and people around cities — from liability under labour and safety laws. But I sometimes think the “tech” title could be a financial strategy: as long as they are in the business of “technology,” a sector in which a life-changing breakthrough is always one innovation away, they can continue to proceed with mergers and acquisitions, attracting more investment capital while posting record losses — because their valuation is potentially limitless.

But they are not about to revolutionize our lives, because they don’t create technology. They’re not curing cancer or growing cell-based meat. They deliver burgers. They built an app 10 years ago and keep tinkering with it. That doesn’t make them Stark International.

The DPWRA presents the appearance of corralling these app-based employers, but it won’t bring any meaningful change. It may as well be written on DoorDash letterhead. Ontario workers deserve better.