the struggle for decent work
by Ludovic Voet on 7th October 2021
On World Day of Decent Work, the European Trade Union Confederation puts the spotlight on justice for platform workers.
In the brave new world of the digital economy, workers in platform companies are still workers. They just don’t have the rights to which all workers in Europe should be entitled.
Work may have moved to the digital space but people exist in the real world. Their need for decent working conditions and pay, security and safety has not gone away. To defend them, trade unions need to be attractive and effective.
Unions around Europe—often working together across borders—are taking action to organise workers in platform companies and bargain on their behalf, challenge their status and press decision-makers to enact law. The European Trade Union Confederation is calling for European Union legislation to establish a rebuttable presumption-of-employment relationship, switching the balance of power and putting the burden of proof on the company, not the individual.
Every platform company is or can be an employer, through algorithm management. Platform companies should have to prove that they truly operate with independent service providers before they can do what they want.
Platform companies are expanding in a wide range of sectors, from transport and food delivery to retail, teaching, care and domestic services. Many such services are longstanding and there is no reason why workers in these sectors should suddenly be treated differently.
Yet platform companies continue to evade their responsibilities to workers and society, generating precariousness and risking health and safety, as well as avoiding the fiscal and social-security obligations any other European company must respect. While platforms claim to be merely contact points, in reality they impose work regimes. Workers are subordinated by digital means.
We need to change the narrative and dismiss the myth that platform work offers ‘freedom’. Workers are not self-employed, because their actions and availability are tightly controlled by company algorithms, preventing them from taking on other clients.
Platform work reproduces and reinforces the same bargaining and power inequality found in any other labour relationship, so unions must explore new ways to organise and represent workers who are often alone and isolated. Listening to their needs and concerns is the vital first step.
Almost 200 legal challengeshave been launched—many successfully—in a variety of countries, with judges in France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and elsewhere ruling that platform workers are employees. In Italy, the Court of Milan has established that riders working for different digital platforms (Foodinho, Glovo, UberEats, JustEat and Deliveroo) cannot be considered as occasional independent workers but must be reclassified as employees. A recent court case initiated by FNV in the Netherlands concluded that Uber is an employer—its workers hence employees—and that the collective agreement of the taxi service should be applied.
Such cases are an effective way to apply pressure on platform companies, but they are often slow, expensive and time-consuming for unions—and an ordeal for the individuals concerned. Moreover, they highlight the loopholes surrounding workers’ status which must be removed by national and EU-wide legislation.
European rules are vital to create legal certainty and a level playing-field for competition. A presumption-of-employment relationship brings that certainty to workers and to platform companies that respect the rules—those working with employees or genuinely self-employed. Once legislation is established, collective bargaining is the most effective way to improve conditions for platform workers and to enforce labour rights, and companies should be obliged by law to negotiate.
Regulating algorithms is a priority. Digital algorithms function as managers, assessing performance and clients’ ratings and defining 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, with trade unions involved in their development and monitoring. Rules are needed to force companies to explain their working methods and use of data.
Many platform companies are multinationals, so regulation is a global issue. Where and under what jurisdiction is work managed and performed? Where does responsibility lie and how can rules be enforced? These are major questions also for tax authorities. In confronting a global phenomenon, unions are increasingly collaborating, including with other stakeholders in society.
Contact and organising
Communication is vital in the efforts to defend workers in platform companies, and ‘social media’ and other digital tools provide new opportunities for contact and organising. The Digital Platform Observatory is one outcome of a two-year project led by the ETUC with the French Institute IRES and the ASTREES organisation. It maps platform work, legal cases and practices of worker representation and social dialogue, country-by-country. The project has also launched coaching sessions and a ‘toolbox’ with practical advice, to assist trade unionists in organising workers and securing negotiations.
In spite of the platforms’ hostile attitude towards trade 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 won compensation for riders who use their own equipment. Inspired by activities in other countries, in Belgium three years ago the CSC confederation set up United Freelancers, to support self-employed workers, and riders’ groups and collectives now operate in France and Austria.
In Italy, unions have ‘met’ Amazon riders using digital tools and reached agreements on standards with local authorities. National collective agreements in the Italian transport and logistics sector define the work of JustEat riders. In the Netherlands, the FNV is targeting forced (‘bogus’) self-employment and winning more and more legal victories.
Inspired by the success of the German union IG Metall in organising YouTubers, the Spanish UGT confederation reached out to people who make their living creating online content, whose work is often governed by unaccountable algorithms. It is in the process of setting up a union for content creators and developing guidance for collective bargaining in the ‘social media’ sector. In Serbia, unions put a stop to government plans to impose higher taxes on some groups of self-employed workers such as translators.
In several countries, workers have got together to set up works councils, which can play a useful role in improving health and safety, for example. Elsewhere, strikes, work stoppages and public petitions have also boosted demands for justice for workers in platform companies.
Experience has shown that legislation can be a game-changer: in Spain, trade unions are securing collective agreements because of the new ‘riders’ law’, even though some companies are still trying to get around it. Following extensive consultation, the European Commission has promised to publish a draft directive by the end of the year.
Besides the rebuttable presumption-of-employment relationship, the ETUC insists that such a directivemust establish the right of workers in platform companies to collective bargaining. It must set rules for data collection and privacy. It must require companies to be transparent about their working methods and consult unions in the development of algorithms. It must set minimum standards—practical and ethical—for both workers and clients. It must guarantee the health and safety of platform workers, combat the inequalities undermining European society and affirm clearly that no third employment status is needed to achieve these goals.
Inevitably, some companies will try to circumvent legal restrictions, so unions must have powers to monitor enforcement. Ultimately, when companies shirk their responsibility to provide social protection for workers, they offload this on to the state. A presumption of employment would also protect genuinely self-employed workers, who should be able to compensate for their lack of employee rights through higher fees.
In the past, some unions may have been guilty of excluding freelance workers—whether genuine or otherwise. Now we know we must be open to all workers. Otherwise, there is a risk that companies will set up their own ‘yellow’ unions or—as happened in Italy—reach pirate agreements with extreme right-wing, non-representative organisations.
October 7th is the annual World Day of Decent Work and this year the ETUC is focusing action on workers in platform companies and ensuring platform companies respect the rules. The EU must act on its pledge to put high social standards at the heart of the digital transformation. A strong directive is the only way to secure a fair future for Europe’s digital economy.
This column is sponsored by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).
Ludovic Voet was elected confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation in 2019.