Time For A European Dialogue On The Platform Economy

Thiébaut Weber

Digital platform operators and workers need to talk, seriously. As the platform economy grows it is extending far beyond the well-known names such as Uber and Deliveroo. Yet much of the sector remains an unregulated free-for-all in which workers struggle to earn a decent living. That’s why trade unions want operators to sit down with them and negotiate on fair wages and conditions.

In January 2018, the ETUC, together with our research institute the ETUI and the French ‘Sharers and Workers’ network, took the first tentative steps towards launching an EU-level dialogue. Our aim was to bring workers and employers in the platform economy together, replace the current often tense relationship with a forum for a frank exchange of views and provide an opportunity for workers and trade unions to get answers to their serious concerns about workers’ rights in this growing sector.

I say ‘employers’ advisedly, because the conditions imposed on very many workers in the platform economy vary little from the standard employment relationship – except they lack rights to security, social protection, paid sick or holiday leave, accident insurance and many other benefits that should be standard, as well as no means of appeal against abuse.

A dialogue requires at least two participants. So, at our event in Brussels, it was important for us to invite representatives from the platform operators. The presence of some 100 platform entrepreneurs, workers, trade unionists, academics and experts demonstrated the high level of interest in this sector – and at times highlighted the workers’ anger at the lack of dialogue and accountability.

We would like to see the development of a structured dialogue between platforms and trade unions. The ETUC position is clear: platform workers should have the same rights and conditions as others. Operators should not be allowed to circumvent rules on minimum pay, working time, social security, health and safety, pensions or taxation. We recognise that some people are looking for flexibility and independence and prefer a self-employed status. But this should not stop them from being covered by labour and social protection regulations, having the protection of a trade union and negotiating collectively on pay and conditions if they so wish. On the other hand, we should also demystify the narrative that suggests platform work is synonymous with self-employment. Thousands of people working in the platform economy do not have the flexibility that real self-employment brings but are subject to a subordinate labour relationship and should thus be entitled to a secure employment contract.

Social contract

We are looking for a new legal framework at European level to protect platform and crowd-workers, with a broader, EU-wide definition of what a worker is. For the last three years the European Commission has stood back and given the sector free rein. Now, as MEP Joachim Schuster told the meeting, it is time to do something. European parliamentarians have promised to put pressure on the Commission to take a lead in drafting EU-wide legislation to enforce workers’ rights and prevent social dumping. Platforms must be actively encouraged to enter negotiations where possible.

Self-employed workers should not be barred from collective action by competition rules. Individuals providing services for clients bear no resemblance to company cartel activities, and they should have the right to trade union protection and bargaining power. Yet EU competition law (articles 101 to 109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU) has been incorrectly interpreted by some Member States’ competition authorities as restricting the right to organise, contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and core ILO Conventions. There should be no legal obstacles to self-employed workers joining a trade union or enjoying the right to collective bargaining, and more and more unions are encouraging them to do so.

The ETUC is using its experience to support platform workers, through sharing good examples of collective action, as well as pressing for new legislation. For example, the proposed Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions (the former Written Statement Directive) must ensure that online platforms conform to the same rules as other employers and should also protect self-employed workers.

Fostering fairness

In April, the Commission will also launch an initiative on ‘Fairness in platform-to-business relations’, which will tackle unfair trading practices by online marketplaces like Amazon or Booking, such as arbitrary deactivation, lack of transparency on platform practices, non-portability of data, or lack of redress mechanisms. It focuses especially on SMEs and micro-traders using online platforms to sell their products and services. In our opinion, many of the harmful trading practices and unfair contractual clauses identified by the Commission as impacting on businesses are also affecting the self-employed providing labour or services through online platforms. Therefore, we are calling on the Commission to expand the scope of this initiative to ‘labour platforms’ and to ensure that workers have a say in the way prices and working conditions are set by platforms and their algorithms.

There are already many good examples of collective action, and several were presented at the January meeting. The crowdfunded BZZT taxi service in Stockholm, for example, has been developed in consultation with the Swedish transport union. In Germany, some online platforms like Testbirds have adopted a Code of Conduct, with input from IG Metall, plus a mediation process for complaints. The FairWork Foundation wants to be able to certify the fairness of online labour platforms, covering issues such as minimum wages, regulation of non-payment, accident protection and much more. Platform workers are looking for innovative means of “combat” and are turning to unions to back them.

Platforms should not be able to side-step rules on workers’ information and participation. Workers at Delivery Hero, which has 6,000 employees in Europe, have set up a Special Negotiating Body and are preparing to go to court to win the right to establish a Works Council.

The platform economy is a fact of life, and trade unions want to engage with it. It was Peter Ahrenfeldt Schrøder from LO-Denmark who told our conference that unions and platforms should have a shared interest in improving wages and conditions. Clients want to be able to trust platforms, and if platforms want to grow they must be trustworthy businesses. The workers themselves would then be able to supply the best proof of quality and transparency.

This column is sponsored by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
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