Protecting the workers behind online platforms

If you’ve ever used an app for food delivery or to hail a ride then you’ve probably experienced platform work first hand. Simply put, platform work uses an online platform that allows you to access services in exchange for payment. But platform work though seemingly innocent and seen as technological advancement has become a breeding ground for precarious work.

This new way of working that first began to emerge in Europe a decade ago is challenging existing labour laws and regulations protecting workers.

Online platforms deny their roles as employers meaning they don’t pay social security contributions or taxes and classify their workers as “self-employed” which leaves them without a social security net. This wouldn’t be an issue if their workers actually fit the conditions of self-employment. But when you work for an online platform that sets the prices, determines your salary and have no shares in the company, then you are an employee and the forced status of self-employment becomes bogus self-employment.

Because of bogus self-employment, workers behind ride-hailing and delivery services face a slew of problems:

  • Lack of social protection such as sick leave;
  • Lack of complaint process;
  • Lack of transparency in the organisation of work based on algorithms and monitoring;
  • Competitive pressure among workers, low pay, denying workers their rights to organise and lack of occupational safety and health.

As platform companies operate online, there is little regulation. Consequently, platforms have profited from this situation and structured their business models around the weaknesses in legislation and absence of enforcement. This gives them a competitive advantage compared to traditional companies bound by strict regulations.

Faced with this lack of legislation, workers have had to claim their right to fair work through independent collectives and groups supported by trade unions.

Trade unions have also started to make steady progress in negotiating collective agreements. For example, Foodora in Norway and Just Eat in Denmark.

However, collective bargaining agreements can only apply to workers that have employee status; something that online platforms are well aware of. With most workers being forced into bogus self-employment; this presents a significant obstacle to fair working conditions.

But, trade unions can never be deterred. And nearly every week brings news about court and administrative decisions concerning employment status, many of them supported or introduced by trade unions.

What is important about these cases is that despite the same set of facts the decisions can go either way: either these workers are considered employees or they’re not. Although most cases lean towards employee status for on-demand and delivery drivers, there are still exceptions.

These victories do not come easily as it is up to workers to prove their employee status. An uphill battle when workers are faced with platform companies that are prepared to splash up to 200 million dollars on a campaign against employment status.

Strengthening the position of workers means reversing the burden of proof. That is why the ETF calls for an EU-wide approach that establishes a rebuttable presumption of employment status for platform workers.

But, this is only part of a much bigger picture, the ETF and its affiliates call and fight for:

  • Fair working conditions for the workers (social protection, OHS, living wages);
  • Rebuttable presumption of the employment status for platform workers;
  • Transparent algorithms under human control (including no automated decision-making concerning deactivations);
  • Information, consultation and negotiation rights concerning working conditions, pay and algorithms for workers’ representatives;
  • Formal grievance and appeal procedures;
  • Access to data by the competent authorities in justified cases of suspected algorithm-biases or other irregularities.

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