'Sharing economy' workers tend to be young, well-educated, finds survey

Canadians engaged in the 'sharing economy' work in the country's largest urban centre and tend to be young and well-educated, according to a new report from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Greater Toronto Area survey sheds new light on how Canadians work in, and use, an emerging service sector

Workers in the emerging 'sharing economy' offer services including rides, meal preparation, food delivery, cleaning, repairs, and rental accommodations. Critics say the sector is defined by precarious labour and the downloading of risks onto workers. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Canadians engaged in the 'sharing economy' work in the country's largest urban centre and tend to be young and well-educated, according to a new report from the Ontario branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"What really stuck out for us is that the sharing economy looks a lot like traditional service sector jobs," said Sheila Block, senior economist with CCPA Ontario. "Except — and I think this is really important — the risks and the costs associated with this work have been downloaded onto workers."

"The sharing economy" is a nebulous term. In a recent report, Statistics Canada described it as "an activity facilitated by digital platforms where people rent their skills (such as, driving or computer skills) and make their resources (such as properties or cars) available for money."

The term is frequently used to describe ride-hailing service Uber and short-term rental service Airbnb, which the CCPA Ontario report calls "the two poster children" for the sharing economy.

Who works in the sharing economy?

The online survey of 2,304 people, conducted by Environics Research with funding from the non-profit Metcalf Foundation, examined how people relate with the sharing economy in the Greater Toronto Area. It asked about their experiences working for sharing economy companies, as well as how they used sharing economy services.

Nine per cent of respondents said they work or had worked in the sharing economy, providing services including rides, meal preparation, food delivery, cleaning, repairs, or rental accommodations. Among those respondents who had worked in the sharing economy, 71 per cent were under the age of 45.

'A pretty good living'

Julia Pak, a 31-year-old bicycle courier for food delivery service Foodora, is one of them. She delivers 25 to 40 hours a week, and estimates that the work accounts for up to 90 per cent of her income

"I'm making a pretty good living doing this," said Pak, who studied at university. "I worked 29 hours last week, and I made about $578."

That's just under $20 per hour — "not too bad," said Pak.

Like Pak, 90 per cent of sharing economy workers surveyed had gone to college or university.  Among current workers, 62 per cent had been in the sector for longer than a year.

Ride-hailing service Uber, perhaps the most well-known 'sharing economy' firm, has been the target of protests by taxi drivers around the world. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

According to the survey, 51 per cent of current sharing economy workers had children under the age of 18.

"The marketing campaigns for these companies make it look like the people who are working in this sector are paying off their brand new car or financing some backpacking adventure," said Block of CCPA Ontario.

"What we can assume is that if you're having kids, this is an important part of your income to raise those kids and to pay for their upbringing."

Asked about the biggest difficulties of working in the sharing economy sector, 41 per cent of respondents said they didn't earn enough money. Thirty-eight per cent cited customer disputes, and 37 per cent said they didn't get enough work. Thirty-five per cent said that "if I get sick I don't get paid."

Who uses sharing economy services?

Thirty-eight per cent of respondents surveyed said they had paid for sharing economy services. Like sharing economy workers, consumers are generally young and well-educated (although users tended to be slightly older than workers).

"The differences that we found [were that] the workers are more likely to be lower-income than the people who are purchasing it, and while the providers are more likely to be racialized, the majority of the people who are buying these services are non-racialized," said Block.

"What we see is that the inequalities the broader labour market are reflected in the sharing economy."

Why call it 'sharing'?

The CCPA Ontario report uses quotation marks around "sharing economy," and acknowledges that the term is problematic. "On-demand service economy" would be more accurate, says the report.

Some observers argue that calling it "the sharing economy" is a public relations strategy.

"My personal perspective is, I think they put the word ["sharing"] in there as a marketing thing," said Margaret Yap, an associate professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management. "If you and I share something, I'm not going to charge you for it, right?"

Still, Block said they had to use the most recognizable term to conduct an effective survey.

"So we absolutely did use that [term], but I think as we found out more about it we realized that there wasn't anything really 'sharing' about it," she said.

Whatever this sector of the economy is called, Block said government policymakers need to pay close attention.

The government of Ontario's ongoing Changing Workplaces Review would be a good way to do it, she said — and broadening the definition of an employee to include sharing economy workers would be a good place to start.

With files from Christian Noël, Radio-Canada

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