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The Race to the Bottom

Bike couriers risk life and limb for unpredictable pay, little job security, and almost no workplace protection.

Jacques Bouchard* had only been a bike messenger for a month when he was hit by a car.

His knee was bloody and swollen, and it would be a month before the Montreal bike courier could go back to weaving through traffic at top speed. Even worse, as an independent contractor, Bouchard couldn’t get paid sick leave or have his hospital bills covered.

Such is the existence of the urban bike messenger — equal parts danger and precariousness.

“I don’t know a lot of couriers with both clavicles intact,” five-year veteran Arsène Lajoie told me with a nonchalant grin. The lanky Montreal courier has his own war story: a car struck him at full speed, leaving him with a broken jaw and a body unfit to cycle. Lajoie was unable to talk properly for weeks after the accident, and during six months of convalescence he racked up thousands of dollars of debt.

Since 2000, couriers have been able to marginally improve their economic security through the Bike Messenger Emergency Fund (BMEF), an international, crowdfunded insurance fund for bike messengers injured on the job. The fund sends messengers a $500 check when they’re hurt and unable to work for a month.

Though it’s a small sum, the five hundred bucks still often means the difference between a home and couch-surfing for many cyclists. “A friend of mine was able to avoid eviction with that money,” says fund co-founder and bike stunt videographer Lucas Brunelle. Bouchard had the same experience.

Still, Quebec couriers’ status as “autonomous workers” renders them extremely dependent on the companies that hire them. “It’s the worst of both worlds,” says Jean, another courier. They’re forced to accept, for instance, getting paid by the delivery — often reducing their remuneration below the hourly minimum wage and making every shift a harried affair.

“I can never find time to eat lunch on shift, because when you have a break there’s no way to know if it’s going to be three hours or ten minutes,” Jean told me. “I end up surviving on pizza and peanut butter sandwiches.” Many couriers wolf something down before work, knowing they might only get the chance to eat once during their shift. “For someone burning 4,500 to 5,000 calories a day,” Jean says, “that’s not enough.”

According to Revenu Quebec, the province’s tax agency, an independent contractor is distinguished by their ability “to choose the means of carrying out a contract” and has “no relationship of subordination” with the company they work for. An independent contractor sets their own schedule, decides where they will work, and defines their own work methods.

An employee, in contrast, has a set schedule, and their employer decides where they will work, defines their tasks and work methods, and manages their activities.

There’s no law in Quebec that designates bike couriers as either employees or independent contractors; the company decides. Couriers who think they’re being misclassified can take their case to the Administrative Labour Tribunal (though, lacking the resources, they rarely do).

An employee “is under the control of their employer,” Montreal labor lawyer Sibel Ataogul explained. They can be disciplined and fired, and are not permitted to subcontract their work. So “in many cases, bike couriers can qualify as employees,” she said.

But it’s apparent why firms prefer affixing the “contractor” label instead. “This downloads costs from companies to employees, and from employees to the public,” Toronto based labor lawyer Joshua Mandryk told me. “Misclassifying your employees as independent contractors is the oldest trick in the book.”

It means not having to pay for things like bikes, workers’ comp, phone bills.

As contractors, couriers have collective-bargaining rights, but no unionization rights. Even negotiating in concert can be a challenge, however, in an occupation with such high turnover. For example, a group of Montreal couriers trying to win better pay at a small food-delivery service abandoned their efforts after the majority of those involved in the organizing campaign quit to work elsewhere.

Another structural impediment to collective action is the atomized work environment. Bike messengers are on their own eight hours a day, through rain and snow, bringing white-collar professionals secret documents or fourteen-dollar quinoa salads. Sometimes couriers hang out at a square downtown when they’re on standby, but it’s the minority of their working hours.

Workplace solitude is even more pronounced for messengers at larger companies like the multinational food-delivery service Jean works for. Workers almost never directly interact with one another, and they never see their employer.

“You think you have great freedom because you think you control things, but ultimately you make less money, less security, and less protections than if you were an employee,” Ataogul told me. “Your work is more precarious.”

Lately, some companies have been deploying technology to further undercut working conditions. At first the multinational food-delivery company Jean works for allowed couriers to see how much they would be paid per delivery and their tip. Now, several app updates later, couriers are no longer privy to the amount until they get their “weekly order statement” with their paycheck.

“It’s one of the most degrading jobs I’ve ever had,” Jean says me. “Every change to the app seemed specifically designed to deny the workers of agency.” The stark contrast between the often well-off people who use courier services and the precarious workers risking their lives, sometimes on icy winter roads, can lead to despair. “You’re making below minimum wage and delivering super expensive, fancy food to people who have no appreciation for what you’ve just gone through.”

Despite the drawbacks, most couriers still love their job. Some relish going into office buildings covered in grime and dirt and then returning to their bikes, unrestricted by corporate dress codes. Others chase the adrenaline rush that comes from dodging taxis and trucks on the streets.

But the work has to be rewarding in more pecuniary ways as well.

“It’s a precarious job because of the conditions under which you’re working, and unless you fight together and change them it’s always going to be like that,” Ataogul says. “The only way to fight against exploitation is to really exercise your freedom of association and stand up for your rights.”

[*]Names of couriers have been changed.