The European Commission’s Platform Proposal: a step forward for workers in the platform economy?

23 Dec 2021

Speaking at the ITF Gig Economy Conference: Organising and Regulating the Gig Economy, on 14 December, ETF President Frank Moreels reflected on the European Commission’s new Proposal to improve the working conditions of people working in digital labour platforms.

Read Frank’s insights on this critical win for trade unions and the next steps ahead:

Is the Commission’s Platform Proposal a step forward? The answer is simple: yes, but…

It is indeed a positive step to protect platform workers and to give them rights, but there is still a long way to go. And we should not forget that the platform companies will mobilise millions in euros lobbying to protect their exploitative business model.

Today, 28.3 million workers are working for 500 platforms active all over Europe. By 2025, it is expected that 43 million workers will be in the platform economy.
55% of the workers do not have the minimum wage of the country in which they operate. Some work up to 12.6 hours a day. The average platform worker spends 8.9 hours per week waiting, mostly unpaid.

The Commission believes that today 1/5th of the platform workforce is misclassified as falsely self-employed.

Unions have to take action!

It is clear that this is a major challenge for trade unionists. They must follow the developments in platform work very carefully, since millions of transport workers are affected by disruptive companies.

Platform companies present a false narrative of autonomy and freedom for the worker. The reality is that the platform business model is based on the economic exploitation of workers, and is undermining hard-fought labour legislation and principle of contribution to social security.

The reality of platform work is one of intense control and subordination of the workers to the platform and algorithms.

This is why unions must put great energy into actions around platform work. It is a fight which is central to trade unionism: giving a voice to the voiceless, fighting for decent work for all.

What the directive means for workers

This proposal from the Commission is not because of a sudden progressive tilt in an institution that prioritises liberalisation and the free market: it is thanks to union pressure.

Trade unions and transport workers across Europe have led the way through their court victories against platform companies as well as through their industrial fights. The platform giants are being brought to court because they operate in illegality and organise social dumping and unfair competition.

We have to welcome the EU Platform Work Directive, as a robust legislative framework that is one of the best ways to ensure that rights and obligations are fulfilled. It covers all platform workers, and can even protect workers in companies such as Amazon, or in Denmark. It develops a good foundation to work on, but more can be won.

The scope of the proposal is clear: it aims to protect workers. It does this through addressing three main concerns: worker-status classification; fairness, transparency and accountability in algorithmic management; and enforcement of social rules for platform workers.

Presumption of employment

The Directive includes a ‘rebuttable presumption of employment’ for workers. This means that platform workers have an employment status until proven otherwise. It also ‘reserves the burden of proof’ to the employer to prove that the employment relationship is something else. This runs counter to current practice.

However, we must take this all with a grain of salt. The proposal introduces five criteria areas to determine the employee status (worker or independent) which could leave room for platform companies to circumvent new rules. If two of the criteria are positively answered, the worker is considered an employee:

  • Can the worker fix the price?
  • Does the platform control the quality of the service?
  • Can the worker determine the working hours/holidays?
  • Can some “duties” determined like for example wearing a uniform?
  • Can the worker work for other platforms?

The criteria must be linked to the burden of proof process, and not to determining the employment status. Otherwise, what is the point of the so called ‘presumption of employment’!

Transparency over the algorithm

One purpose of the directive is to promote ‘transparency, fairness and accountability in algorithmic management’.

The proposal outlines that a model organising work based on algorithmic management presumes an employment relationship, which is a big win.
Platforms shall have to provide information to workers and their representatives about the actions that are monitored and the main parameters used. What’s more, it obliges risk assessment and mitigation, consistent with a human-in-command approach; giving the right for an explanation and for it to be presented in an accessible way.

Minimum standards in working conditions and labour rights contained within social legislation and rules will be guaranteed to platform workers without qualification. This will require platforms to inform and consult worker representatives on algorithmic management.

This aims to promote social dialogue but stops short of the protection of collective bargaining rights for all.

Up to the unions to take action!

This Proposal for a Directive tackles big issues. But it has only laid out a framework that still needs to be agreed then implemented by Member States. After debates in Brussels, EU countries will have two years to adopt the final legislation. We are looking at four years until the new rules are in place.

Better late than never for this proposal. This directive will give some power to the workers. National authorities have, up until now, not pulled their weight on the issue of platform work. Unions must keep up the pressure on their national governments.

The Platform lobby will respond

Platform companies are not taking this lying down. They have expanded their lobbying, have formed new lobby groups and commissioned studies, warning that reclassification will lead to massive job losses.

While leaders at the Commission meet with ETF and other social partners, the platforms continually lobby for influence and access, holding meetings across Brussels and national capitals.

As European trade unions we need to build up and strengthen our lobbying efforts; this requires a coordinated and strategic international response on behalf of the international trade union movement.

Demand collective bargaining!

Unions must fight to ensure that platform workers’ rights to social dialogue and collective bargaining are enshrined in European law.

What we do not want are global agreements, with some vague declarations. We want clear engagement from Uber, Deliveroo and their cohorts; recognising unions; accepting social dialogue; and collective bargaining.

Unions must act with one voice, as an entire trade union family, to achieve these rights. The fight for fair platform work is a fight for decent work for the most vulnerable workers.