'You feel trapped': Montreal gig workers have to hustle, despite lack of labour protections

A few years ago, Shanti Gonzales started waking up in the morning with no voice.

At the time, she was working a gig where she would sing to rooms of rambunctious children at libraries and schools, and it took a toll.

No amount of honey and tea and lozenges helped. She often would wind up hoarse by the end of her shift, meaning she had to stop working — at that job, and at her other gigs.

"I didn't have anything to lean back on. I didn't have paid time off. I didn't have health insurance, I didn't have any benefits. I didn't even have someone to cover for me," she said.

"Without these protections, you feel trapped."

Like many her age, Gonzales, 24, is working in what's called the gig economy. Though the term may bring to mind jobs that involve some kind of online platform (such as Fiverr or Foodora), it also includes those who work independent contracts for short, fixed periods of time.

The rise of the gig economy has led to a problem: workers who are juggling several different contracts don't always have the protections, such as a human resources department, or a union, that salaried workers do.

Gonzales graduated from McGill with a BA in English three years ago, and since then, she's never had a full-time job. She has worked as a musician, nanny, arts educator, administrator, copywriter and playwright.

In some of those jobs, she has faced discrimination based on her gender, her race, and her age, she said. But she never had many avenues of recourse.

A 'rolling back' of labour protections?

According to John Paul Ferguson, a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, the gig economy has less to do with the type of work people are doing and more to do with the relationship between the employer and the employee.

Along with his colleague Matthew Corritore, Ferguson is surveying gig economy workers in Montreal to better understand their realities.

Ferguson says while there are some good things about the gig economy — like how online platforms can make it easier for people to contract for work — he has concerns about the effect of the gig economy on workers' rights.

In the past, policies were put in place restricting casual labour because of concerns about exploitation, underpayment and unfairness, he said.

"The worry that those of us who have studied employment for many years have is: how much of this is just a rolling back of some of these protections that we put on our employees in the past?"

The province's major labour laws do not apply to people who are self-employed. However, Catherine Poulin, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of Labour, said some self-employed workers in the gig economy may actually have an employer-employee relationship with their employer, and therefore are protected.

Gonzales, for example, is considered an employee at some jobs, but considered self-employed at others.

Those who face discrimination are also entitled to the protections under the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and can file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights commission, Poulin said in a statement.

Relying on a community

Gonzales says one of the most important aspects of the gig economy is knowing which gigs are good and which are not.

She relies on a community of people who meet up in person or chat over the phone to give each other advice about jobs and employers to avoid.

This tight-knit web of people also share opportunities with each other and recommend each other for jobs that may come up.

Gonzales said being a part of the gig economy can be isolating and leave people vulnerable because they don't have co-workers.

"I think that's why these little micro communities form. It's the people: we're 'in it' for each other. We're in it to make sure that we can achieve each others' goals, together. The community aspect is the thing I am fiercely protective of and fiercely invested in."