On World Decent Work Day, the European Trade Union Confederation emphasizes justice for platform workers.
In the brave new world of the digital economy, workers in platform companies are still workers. They simply do not have the rights that all workers in Europe should be entitled to.
Work may have moved to the digital space, but people exist in the real world. Their need for decent working conditions and pay, safety and security has not disappeared. To defend them, unions must be attractive and effective.
Across Europe, unions – who often work together across borders – are taking action to organize and bargain workers in platform companies on their behalf, challenge their status and pressure decision-makers to pass a law. The European Trade Union Confederation calls for European Union legislation to establish a rebuttable presumption of employment relationship, reversing the balance of power and placing the burden of proof on the company and not on the individual.
Each platform company is or can be an employer, through the management of algorithms. Platform companies would have to prove that they actually operate with independent service providers before they can do what they want.
The platform’s businesses are expanding across a wide range of industries, from food transportation and delivery to retail, education, healthcare and home services. Many of these services have been around for a long time and there is no reason why workers in these sectors should suddenly be treated any differently.
Yet platform companies continue to shirk their responsibilities to workers and society, creating insecurity and endangering health and safety, while avoiding the fiscal and social obligations that any other European company must meet. While platforms claim to be just touchpoints, they actually impose work regimes. Workers are subordinated by digital means.
We need to change the narrative and throw out the myth that platform work offers “freedom”. Workers are not self-employed, as their actions and availability are tightly controlled by company algorithms, preventing them from taking other clients.
Platform work reproduces and reinforces the same negotiations and power inequalities found in any other working relationship, so unions need to explore new ways of organizing and representing workers who are often alone and isolated. . Listening to their needs and concerns is the vital first step.
Nearly 200 court challenges have been launched, many of them successfully, in various countries, with judges in France, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and elsewhere who have ruled that platform workers are employees. In Italy, the Milan court ruled that runners working for different digital platforms (Foodinho, Glovo, UberEats, JustEat and Deliveroo) cannot be considered as occasional self-employed workers but must be requalified as employees. A recent court case initiated by the FNV in the Netherlands concluded that Uber is an employer – its workers and therefore its employees – and that the collective agreement for the taxi service must be applied.
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Such cases are an effective way to lobby platform companies, but they are often slow, costly and time-consuming for unions – and a hardship for the individuals involved. In addition, they highlight the loopholes surrounding the workers’ statute which must be removed by national and European legislation.
European rules are essential to create legal certainty and a level playing field for competition. A deemed-employment relationship brings that certainty to rule-abiding workers and platform companies, those that work with employees or are truly self-employed. Once legislation is established, collective bargaining is the most effective way to improve conditions for platform workers and enforce labor rights, and companies should be required by law to bargain.
Regulation algorithms Ihis priority. Digital algorithms work like managers, evaluating client performance and ratings and setting pay and working conditions. Yet they lack human oversight and are often based on discriminatory assumptions. They must be transparent and subject to human arbitration, the unions being involved in their development and monitoring. Rules are needed to oblige companies to explain their working methods and the use of data.
Many platform companies are multinationals, so regulation is a global issue. Where and under what jurisdiction is the work managed and performed? Where does the responsibility lie and how can the rules be enforced? These are also major questions for the tax authorities. Faced with a global phenomenon, unions are collaborating more and more, including with other actors in society.
Contact and organization
Communication is vital in worker advocacy efforts in platform companies, and “social media” and other digital tools offer new opportunities for contact and organization. The Digital Platforms Observatory is one of the results of a two-year project led by the ETUC with the French Institute IRES and the ASTREES association. It identifies the work of platforms, legal affairs and worker representation and social dialogue practices, country by country. The project also launched coaching sessions and a “toolbox” containing practical advice, to help trade unionists organize workers and secure negotiations.
Despite the hostile attitude of the platforms towards unions in their companies, union activity has intensified across Europe. Unions in Germany, Austria and France have set up physical spaces for riders to meet, rest or repair their bikes and have secured compensation for riders who use their own equipment. Inspired by activities in other countries, the CSC confederation created United Freelancers in Belgium three years ago to support the self-employed, and groups and collectives of riders now operate in France and Austria.
In Italy, unions have “met” Amazon bikers using digital tools and reached standards agreements with local authorities. National collective agreements in the Italian transport and logistics sector define the work of JustEat runners. In the Netherlands, the FNV targets forced (“bogus”) self-employment and increasingly wins legal victories.
Inspired by the success of the German union IG Metal By organizing YouTubers, the Spanish Confederation UGT has reached out to people who make a living creating online content, whose work is often ruled by inexplicable algorithms. It is in the process of setting up a union for content creators and developing guidelines for collective bargaining in the “social media” sector. In Serbia, unions halted government plans to impose higher taxes on certain groups of self-employed workers such as translators.
In several countries, workers have come together to form works councils, which can play a useful role in improving health and safety, for example. Elsewhere, strikes, work stoppages and public petitions have also fueled demands for justice for workers at platform companies.
Experience has shown that legislation can be a game-changer: in Spain, unions secure collective agreements with the new “runners law”, even though some companies are still trying to circumvent it. After extensive consultation, the European Commission promised to publish a draft directive by the end of the year.
In addition to the rebuttable presumption of employment relationship, the ETUC insists that such a directive must establish the right of workers in platform companies to collective bargaining. It must set rules for data collection and confidentiality. It must demand that companies be transparent about their working methods and consult the unions in the development of algorithms. It must set minimum standards — practical and ethical — for workers and customers. It must guarantee the health and safety of platform workers, fight against the inequalities that undermine European society and clearly state that no third employment status is necessary to achieve these objectives.
Inevitably, some companies will try to circumvent legal restrictions, so unions must have the power to monitor enforcement. Ultimately, when companies shirk their responsibility to provide social protection to workers, they offload it to the state. A presumption of employment would also protect genuinely self-employed workers, who should be able to compensate for their lack of rights as employees with higher contributions.
In the past, some unions may have been guilty of excluding self-employed workers, whether genuine or not. We now know that we must be open to all workers. Otherwise, companies risk forming their own “yellow” unions or, as happened in Italy, entering into pirate deals with unrepresentative far-right organizations.
October 7 is the annual World Decent Work Day and this year the ETUC is focusing its action on platform company workers and ensuring platform companies play by the rules. The EU must deliver on its pledge to place high social standards at the heart of the digital transformation. A strong directive is the only way to ensure a fair future for Europe’s digital economy.