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Respect would be among new benefits

Higher status with unionization. Workers face challenges of over-hiring
and price-drops amid fierce competition

Montreal Gazette, April 03, 2004
 
By Kazi Stastna

They're some of the hardest- working people downtown, with the lousiest working conditions, but the city's bike couriers get a lot less respect than the average paper-pusher.

That might change if efforts to unionize the industry succeed. Maybe then, couriers will achieve the status of workers not only in terms of employee benefits and job security but in the eyes of society, Claude Depatie said.

The 33-year-old single mother left her job as a contemporary dancer five years ago to become a bike courier. The 9-5 schedule made it possible for her to share custody of her 13-year-old daughter and the $450 to $500 she averages per week helps put a dent in the debts she accumulated while earning her bachelor of arts degree.

What the 50- to 60-per-cent commission she earns on each delivery doesn't pay for are some of the other costs couriers rack up: from bags, helmets and bike maintenance to the $20 a week companies charge for the radio needed to talk to dispatchers.

Any time taken off - whether for injures, illness or vacation - is also on the courier's own dime.

Depatie has been dragged by a bus and suffered four concussions during her five years navigating bike-courier territory, which stretches as far north as St. Joseph Blvd. and as far south as Old Montreal.

Ironically the best time of the year for cycling - summer - is the worst for business because many offices close and there is a glut of couriers on the road.

"When it's minus 40 degrees and there's snow everywhere and ice patches, that's when the money comes in," said Depatie, who braved yesterday's driving rain in a wool hat and a light jacket.

Nonetheless, many companies take on more couriers in the summer, which leads to one of the most common complaints couriers have about their industry: over-hiring.

"There is nothing that prevents a courier company that needs 10 bikers to hire 15, because they pay per call. ... It doesn't cost them one cent more; it just makes for smaller pay for everybody," said Karl Ouellet, who has worked for about 15 different companies over 13 years.

The 30-year-old bike courier has watched prices in the messenger industry drop as an influx of smaller companies has led to cutthroat competition.

"Eight years ago, I was making $1,400 every two weeks steady. Now if I'm making $1,000, I'm happy," he said at Place Ville Marie, which is both a work hub and a rest stop for couriers.

Tom Ostreiko of the Montreal Bike Messengers Association said there are two kinds of people who take on the job of courier: the degree-holders who can't sit behind a desk and the social outcasts who are unable to find conventional work or are at a difficult point in their lives.

"For a lot of people, it's a re-entry point into society. If it wasn't for this job, they'd be in all sorts of trouble," he said.

More on Montreal's labour fight here and here

 


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