Anne Dufresne: Uber’s social dialogue deal with the UBT-FGTB union in Belgium

Anne Dufresne, activist for gig workers’ rights and member of the GRESEA research group, gives a critical perspective on Uber’s recognition agreement with Belgian union UBT-FGTB, the first such agreement in the EU.

A longer version of this article was first published in French on GRESEA’s website.

Picture by Jérôme Coppée

DESPITE the revelation of the Uber Files, the Uber lobby has struck again in Belgium, on the ground of trade unionism, this time! After having obtained the legalisation of its social practices thanks to the recent “taxi plan” adopted by the Brussels Government, Uber is now seeking to legitimise itself as a “social partner” thanks to the signing of an agreement with the UBT-FGTB transport union. The American platform, still outlawed until recently, continues to refuse to be an employer respecting labour law. But how can a union lend itself to this funny dance of social dialogue with Uber?

Uber, social dialogue and a flytrap for support unions

After gaining a foothold and legitimising itself legally through lobbying, Uber has become a major political player in Belgium and is now taking on unions. Franck Moreels, President of UBT, the FGTB’s transport organisation, which signed an agreement with Uber on 21 October, explains Uber’s evolution in its report to workers’ defense organisations:

In the past, we’ve had some pretty heated fights with Uber. Under the regime of Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, the company wanted nothing to do with social dialogue with the unions, quite the contrary. We were considered enemies. This changed under the leadership of Dara Khorsrowshahi [since 2017]. […] They are looking for social dialogue.

The term “social dialogue” is important: the rapprochement between Uber and the UBT-FGTB is indeed carried out through “social dialogue” between “social partners” and not through collective negotiation between “social interlocutors” which would draw its strength from the organisation and mobilisation of workers in the sectors concerned. Let us recall here, with Georges Debunne, general secretary of the FGTB in the 1970s, the fundamental difference between these two expressions: 

“The term “social partners” offended me […]. The union was not a partner of management. We didn’t live together, we weren’t partners or married. Hence my preference for the expression “social interlocutors”, which is much more correct and more realistic. Let me be well understood. I was a partisan of dialogue, discussion, negotiation, concerted effort to seek agreements with the employers’ union, but no one could ignore that our interests were or could be divergent […]. We were well separated from each other. They inside the place, the owners and us outside, the applicants!”

Source: Excerpt from Georges Debunne (2003), When will Europe be social?, Paris, Syllepse, p. 41.

In addition to the weakness of what this “social dialogue” can promise, the UBT-FGTB agreement came at a very specific moment of necessary re-legitimisation of Uber: after having set foot in the Belgian economy by predatory means, often illegal, it was important for the platform to clean up its image. That the agreement was signed on October 21, 2022 in Belgium, on the eve of the hearing of Mark MacGann, the whistleblower of the Uber Files who put Uber under pressure, is no coincidence. But this Belgian agreement is not the first signed with Uber. It has a very interesting precedent in the UK, which allows us to better understand its ins and outs.

The British Lab

Indeed, the very first union to enter the social dialogue game of Uber is the UK union GMB. This union signed a so-called “historic” agreement with the platform on May 26, 2021. In its communication, Uber then said that it formally recognised GMB, “which allows the union to represent the 70,000 drivers throughout the country”. This agreement is specific in that it follows a judgment of February 19, 2021 of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom which decided that Uber drivers should be treated as “workers” rather than as self-employed. Thanks to this status, British Uber drivers are therefore supposed to receive at least the minimum wage (‘National Living Wage’), to be entitled to paid leave and to be able to contribute to a retirement savings plan, to which the company contributes.

In addition to these three elements included in the current worker statute (salary, holidays, retirement) and which it must help to enforce, the agreement between the GMB union and Uber addresses other subjects:

– discretionary benefits, including free AXA health and injury insurance, as well as the Uber driver loyalty program, in place since 2018;

– Health, safety and well-being;

But also :

– Representation: GMB and Uber management will meet quarterly to discuss driver issues and concerns.

– the organisation of drivers: Uber has granted access rights to GMB representatives at driver hubs in order to allow them to meet and support drivers.

– deactivation of accounts: GMB will play a role in representing drivers if they lose access to the Uber application

While the first two topics do not display anything new, as they had already been discussed since 2018, the following three correspond to what seems to be becoming the standard norm of an ultra-minimalist platform of social dialogue that we will find in the future Belgian agreement. First, the “representation” only consists of one meeting per quarter – which most often already exists under another name. Second, what is referred to here as “driver organisation” is explained in the press release: “Uber will support drivers if they choose to join the GMB. And, union representatives will be present in the assistance centers for drivers in order to promote their adherence”. In the absence of a real organisation of workers, this practice is a caricature of forced membership in a support union. There remains the last point on the deactivation of accounts and the question of the role that GMB can play in it.

A laboratory of social dialogue with platforms, has Uber changed following the Supreme Court judgment and the recognition agreement concluded with the GMB? Nothing is less certain, according to the representatives of the two basic unions of drivers, the IWGB and the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU).

Regarding the application of worker status, according to James Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU): “A year later, Uber has still not complied with the court order to pay the time from opening to closing of the session, and a large part of the working time is still unpaid”. James Vail, head of communications at the IWGB, was equally critical: “Uber drivers are very vulnerable to inflationary pressures, such as rising fuel prices. The agreement with GMB did nothing to improve wages”.

On organising, it is interesting to note that, in the UK at least, the Uber-GMB deal does not appear to have affected the organising efforts of the two protesting unions. According to Vail (IWGB): “The GMB deal was designed by Uber bosses to confuse drivers about which union they should join and to stifle our organisation. Despite this, we have continued to make progress in the year since the agreement was reached: we remain a worker-led, grassroots-organised union and we are seeing a steady increase in membership.”

Finally, regarding the deactivation/dismissal, Mick Rix, national officer of the GMB union explains as a signatory of the agreement: “we represented over 500 drivers (out of 10,600 in 2021)  who had been suspended or deactivated from the Uber app. Thanks to our representations, approximately 92% of these drivers were able to resume their work on the application.”  

The assessment of the agreement after one year shows that on the main points of the application of worker status (salary and working time), the protesting unions are absolutely not satisfied with the result. On the other points of the agreement which correspond to the future standard of platform dialogue, opinions are divided between the unions, even if they remain generally very critical.

The ITF promotes the first European “disagreement agreement” with Uber: in Belgium!

After this first unprecedented British agreement, the International Transport Federation (ITF) also signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2022 with Uber to begin a “social dialogue” on the conditions of work of couriers and drivers around the world.

The two signatories, Uber and ITF undertake to organise round tables between their members (the national transport unions) and the management of the company. Importantly, the ITF also says it wants to vigorously challenge the misclassification of bogus self-employed and advocates wage labour.

On this basis, the ITF requests the extension of this type of agreement in other countries with the three key points: representation, organisation, deactivation. After a second social dialogue agreement signed in an Anglo-Saxon country, Australia, Belgium will emerge as the first of the class to sign an agreement on the European continent.

It was therefore as a member of the ITF, and one month after the signing of the memorandum of the international organisation, that the UBT-FGTB, the union’s central transport organisation, proposed to Uber to start a dialogue with a view to a deal. According to the signatory of the agreement, Tom Peeters: “discussions on this agreement began as early as March 2022, and our visit to the Uber Hub in London convinced us that this collaboration was important ”. An important collaboration, why?

The UBT-FGTB wants to exist internationally

UBT is one of the smallest sections of the FGTB. It signed an agreement on October 21, 2022 with the aim of existing in the sector at European and international level, despite the fact it does not exist on the ground in Belgium. And this, especially since the President of the UBT, Frank Moreels, already vice-president of the ITF, now wishes to run for the presidency of the international federation. This poses a real challenge for trade union democracy and the form that worker representation will take in the future. The UBT, the transport federation of the FGTB, claims to be representative of drivers and couriers even though it has very few affiliates at Uber or Deliveroo. It claims this representativeness because of its 60,000 members in the transport sector, more generally. The international stakes defended by the UBT take us away from the essential questions: the unity of the workers and their representatives on the claims emanating from the workers themselves. The UBT wishes to become the only representative of the sector on the platform, while the Collectif des Coursiers, the organization of Uber taxi drivers (USCP) and ACV United Freelancers have always been the most representative of the couriers and drivers.

A varnish on the statute, a black hole on the remunerations

The content of the agreement is hollow since it is above all a question of sitting down at the negotiation table, even if the list of demands is above ground. Dialogue to exist without a real object of negotiation: this is accompanying trade unionism, a trend widely present within the trade union movement in Belgium and elsewhere, activated here in its absolute caricature since it is linked to a company that was still illegal two years ago.

To maintain face, the UBT signatory explains that the signed agreement is a “disagreement agreement” on employment status. The UBT refuses to agree with Uber on the question of employment status, which in Belgium takes the form of false self-employed persons or service providers under the p2p status. The union therefore advocates salaried status for couriers and drivers, statuses which would then allow them to enroll in joint committees and thus obtain specific rights. UBT explains the expression “disagreement” as follows: “We are radical on the defense of employee status, but wish to progress on social dialogue to improve working conditions […]. For us, the first step is to be representative in Uber society.”

So what is the content of this social dialogue agreement? In a press release, the signatory explains the “three key points” which correspond to those included in the ITF agreement: firstly, the representation of the workers consists of setting up four meetings per year with Uber and a union representative present in the Brussels Hub to provide services to drivers and couriers. The second point of the agreement is, according to Peeters, “the improvement of working conditions: questions of work safety and working conditions can be discussed with Uber”. This remains very vague and especially the essential questions of the salary and the control of the algorithm do not appear. The last point concerns arbitrary disconnections: “the union will represent the drivers if they seek to appeal in the event of loss of access to the Uber application”.

Despite the weak content of this agreement, its signatory is pleased to follow the model of the British agreement. They must, however, be distinguished. Indeed, the UK union GMB has certainly signed an agreement with Uber, but on a different basis because, as we have already said, British workers have the specific status of “worker“, including an hourly wage, country holidays and a retirement plan. The Belgians have no valid status and therefore no access to an hourly wage, p2p being a tax regime more than a status. Even if the British workers receive a salary lower than the minimum wage, they nevertheless escape the piecework which is still the fate of Belgian workers.

To conclude, if Uber now wishes to sign agreements with the unions who are willing, it is essentially to establish its legitimacy as an actor in “social dialogue”. However, it does so without giving up anything on the essential elements of collective bargaining: status and salary.

Uber still follows its same international strategy of giving with one hand and taking with the other. By displaying the worker status of its drivers in the UK as proof of its change of course since 2017, the platform continues to fight in court to resist this change imposed on it in other countries. Uber does not seem to have changed its predatory methods, but is becoming more and more skilful, notably adding “social dialogue” to its initial strategy.

The social partner Uber is still not a negotiating employer, just a flytrap for the accompanying unions. Acting on the whole world, the transport platform will finally make it possible to identify in each country the most conciliatory unions, or in other words, those which, according to Frank Moreels (UBT) are ready to “venture on the path of social dialogue instead of camping on battlefield positions”.

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