By Pablo Aguera Reneses, Fabian Ferrari, Shelly Steward and Mark Graham
Fairwork spoke to MEP Leïla Chaibi (La France Insoumise) about her recently proposed EU Directive which seeks to expand protections to platform workers in Europe.
Across the European Union, and the world, platform workers lack access to basic workplace rights and protections. In an attempt to improve this situation, the Left group in the European Parliament recently released a directive seeking to expand the rights of platform workers. This action comes at a time when platform workers’ conditions have risen to the forefront of labour policy debates in many European countries.
These debates have centred largely on the (mis)classification of workers as independent contractors, rather than employees, which has been contested in courts across the continent. Courts in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and the UK have, for the most part, ruled in favour of reclassifying gig workers as employees, who are owed basic rights, including a minimum wage.
However, platforms have been slow to comply with these rulings. In response, some countries have taken legislative action to better protect gig workers, especially as the pandemic highlighted the challenges these workers often face accessing the protections afforded to most workers. In Germany, for example, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs recently released a list of proposals to ensure fair conditions for platform work. These proposals include improved social protection, more universal pension and accident insurance, and improved possibilities for collective action by independent contractors. A few days later, the German Federal Labour Court ruled that even micro-tasks can establish a working relationship between workers and platforms.
Chaibi’s directive would establish minimum labour and social security standards for platform workers throughout the EU, while allowing some flexibility in how countries met those standards. In 2019, the EU Parliament approved rules establishing basic minimum rights for casual and short-term employment, including gig workers, which need to be implemented by countries within three years of the law passing. The new directive expands these rights and ensures basic levels of predictability for workers. It holds countries accountable for requiring companies to adhere to maximum periods of work, minimum rest periods, and remuneration requirements including overtime pay. It also calls for transparency regarding the influence of algorithms on workers’ livelihoods and the protection of workers’ personal data.
What are the benefits of regulating platform work at the European level?
Problems faced by platform workers, in terms of recognition of their rights, are broadly similar across the EU. However, data collected during the preparatory work for the directive lays bare significant differences between Member States as regards their regulatory approach to digital platforms.
Germany and Denmark, for example, have chosen to ban a transport platform – a renowned licensed-driver passenger transport platform – from operating in their territories, as the company did not comply with the rules on passenger transport. Other Member States have banned only certain services of the same platform, while others are yet to establish any limits.
In addition, in recent years, legal actions concerning misclassification of platform workers as ‘independent subcontractors’ as opposed to ‘employees’ have become commonplace in the Union, not just before national courts and tribunals but also before the Court of Justice of the European Union. The result of this is legal uncertainty which requires legislative clarification.
In such circumstances, action by Member States alone cannot guarantee that all workers in the Union and in all Member States will have their rights respected and enjoy decent working conditions. That is why the Union has a clear role to play.
How does your proposed directive relate to the EU Commission’s new Digital Services Act?
The Digital Services Act has introduced new digital services liability rules, in other words, it establishes rules governing online content moderation and, once adopted by the co-legislator, will mainly apply to social media platforms.
My proposed directive relates to a different kind of platforms, i.e. service companies organised offline, operative in particular in the licensed-driver passenger transport and meal-delivery sectors. Issues there are of a different nature and fall into the remit of working conditions, collective bargaining, social protection…
It had been my fear for a moment the Commission would tackle this dimension in the DSA, which would have been detrimental: these issues cannot be tackled incidentally, as a footnote, and through the prism of competition law rather than labour law. It does not seem to be the case anymore, which I strongly welcome.
What has been the reception of your proposal from the Commission and the European Parliament? Are platforms pushing back against these proposals?
I formally presented it to Commissioner Nicolas Schmit (Jobs & Social rights) and to the European Parliament’s EMPL committee (Employment & social affairs). Reception has been both times fairly positive as there is growing consensus the status quo is no longer tenable. However, platforms still yield significant influence in some political groups and they are dead set against acknowledging their employer responsibilities.
In the aftermath of Proposition 22, platforms have announced their intentions to replicate this model in other countries. How can Europe best respond to ensure gig worker’s rights?
By adopting my directive! The millions sunk into Proposition 22 prove that platforms are desperately pursuing any alternative to giving gig workers their due. They will try to muddle the waters and push for any half-measure imaginable. Their current pet topic is the so-called ‘third status’, which would not ensure gig workers’ rights. Another one is taking Emmanuel Macron’s voluntary charters as an example of good practice. It was struck down by the courts, but viability is not their concern. The European institutions need to resist this lobbying and take the full measure of what is at stake.
What can workers, and citizens more generally, do to ensure platforms are held more accountable?
Citizens can always go for co-op platforms when needing similar services: Coopcycle, Coursiers bordelais, … this website lists some other (co-op platforms). Gig workers can organize, be it within trade unions or in workers’ collectives. But if individual action is always needed, the balance of power between platforms and gig workers is currently so lopsided that the full protection of the law is needed here. Once gig workers are given their rights as regular workers, and only then, regular collective bargaining will follow in a normal setting.
Can municipalities within, and beyond, the EU use platform technology to create public alternatives to dominant private companies?
In order not to remain in a merely reactive position, it is essential to come up with alternatives to platform companies. I have mentioned the cooperative model, but indeed possibilities offered by digital technology and network organization should be exploited in order to develop public platform models. Access to data and the capacity to exploit them will be at the crux of the problem. Making sure municipalities are equipped to allow their data to be better exploited, and facilitating access to data by private actors with a general interest value is a challenge worth taking on!