A team of researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) and the University of Vienna will lead the implementation of Fairwork ratings in Austria. The Fairwork Austria team is composed of Leonhard Plank, Markus Griesser and Laura Vogel at the TU Wien, and Martin Gruber-Risak and Benjamin Herr at the University of Vienna. The project, which started in February 2021, is funded by the City of Vienna, namely the Municipal Department of Economic Affairs, Labour and Statistics, and by the Chamber of Labour Vienna.
In Austria, the gig economy became a topic of public debates in the mid-2010s with the arrival of digital labour platforms like Uber. Nowadays, food delivery and ride-hailing services are dominated by a few multinational corporations. Just Eat Takeaway.com (in Austria: Lieferando) and Delivery Hero Holding GmbH (in Austria: Mjam) monopolise platform-based food delivery, while Uber and Bolt do so in ride-hailing. On the other hand, in the domestic work sector, multinational corporations like Helpling and Book-a-Tiger closed their branch offices in Austria in the late 2010s, creating opportunities for (local) start-ups to thrive.
Several studies suggest a minor, albeit growing, importance of the gig economy in Austria. Nonetheless, available data is rare and varies due to a lack of clarity on technical definitions and application of research designs. According to a Eurobarometer telephone survey, only around 2 per cent of Austrian residents aged 15 years or older offer services via so called “collaborative platforms” (e.g. work on digital labour platforms) at least once a month. In contrast, a study by the University of Hertfordshire found around 13 per cent of the working-age population (18-65) in Austria undertake platform work at least once a month (most of them as a side activity).
In recent years, a series of conflicts and disputes have emerged concerning the Austrian gig economy. In 2017, food-delivery workers at Foodora (now Mjam) established the first works council in the country’s platform economy, supported by the Austrian Transportation and Services Union, vida. This was followed by the establishment of a works council at Lieferando in 2019. In January 2020, the first collective agreement for bicycle couriers (Fahrradboten) came into effect, covering employed bicycle couriers. Still, the majority of workers are not covered by this agreement as the sector is mainly characterised by (bogus-) self-employment. Furthermore, new legal disputes emerged with respect to collective bodies of workers since Lieferando – one of the two main food delivery platforms – refuses to recognise the elected works council. In court, the management argued that, in a strict sense, the company is not even located in Austria since the application, the core feature of the platform, is maintained by the German office and the servers are located in the Irish office of Just Eat Takeaway.com. Since there is no company, the management claims, there cannot be a works council.
Furthermore, in the ride-hailing sector, disputes between the new platform companies and established taxi companies emerged. The latter complain about unfair competition since Uber was not classified as a taxi company but cooperated with hire car companies which implied a less restrictive regulatory framework. This conflict led to temporary closure of Uber’s operations in Austria and finally resulted in a far-reaching reform of the legal framework of the taxi and hire car sector. Even though companies like Uber can continue to offer their services in Vienna, Salzburg and other cities they now have to operate within a legal context with several adjustments, primarily in terms of the fare system and qualification requirements of drivers.
The economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis has massively impacted Austria’s gig economy. Food delivery and grocery delivery services expanded significantly during the pandemic. Several new platforms in grocery delivery have sprung up in this increasingly competitive market, where not only large supermarket chains are involved, but even Mjam – usually delivering meals from restaurants to customers – has now added grocery deliveries to its business model. While workers in these sectors are facing new challenges, especially the risk of infection, in other sectors like the ride-hailing services, many lost their jobs due to lockdowns, social distancing and the decline of the tourism industry.
Unfortunately, so far, there is only anecdotal evidence about the precise effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the gig economy in Austria. By applying the Fairwork framework, we seek to shed some light on how the pandemic has affected workers in particular, and the overall state of working conditions in the Austrian gig economy more generally.