Taxi protest saw union leader arrested, while ‘Alternatives to Uberisation’ conference analysed how effective the proposed Platform Work Directive really is for securing workers’ rights
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HUNDREDS of taxis blocked roads outside the European Commission building in Brussels on the same day as platform workers and campaigners met at the European Parliament, in a double show of defiance against “Uberisation” in Europe on Thursday [8 September].
“Taxis were the guinea pigs of Uberisation”
The mobilisation saw up to 600 taxis descend on Brussels, with drivers from Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium all represented. Placards included ‘Uber Files: European Commissioner Neelie Kroes secretly lobbied for Uber’, ‘R.I.P. Taxi: EU Act now or don’t cry later’, ‘Uber Files: European Commissioner – You Too?’, and ‘taxis of the world united against corruption’.
The Uber Files revealed that Neelie Kroes, former EU Vice-President and Commissioner for ‘the Digital Agenda’, had broken the EU’s rules on an 18-month ‘cooling off’ period after leaving the Commission before lobbying governments. The Files showed Kroes, also a former Dutch Transport minister, had lobbied a Dutch minister on behalf of Uber to “force regulator and police to back off” over investigations into the US private hire giant.
Sam Bouchal, General Secretary of the Brussels Federation of Taxis, spoke to the Alternatives to Uberisation conference prior to the taxi mobilisation, saying that they “decided to kick-off the demonstration because of the Uber Files revelations”.
He added: “We have known about this for ten years. Everything we’ve been denouncing – collusion and corruption – has now been proven. And with Kroes it was real corruption, she negotiated with Uber while still working with the European Commission.
“Taxis were the guinea pigs of Uberisation; at first they applied it to us and now they apply it to everyone. Uber isn’t really an economic project, it’s a political project. The aim is to scrap employment legislation with ‘flexibility’.
“We want to alert the public so they don’t close their eyes to what will soon hit them.”
Alberto ‘Tito’ Alvarez, leader of taxi union Elité Taxi Barcelona, which won a major victory in July after the Catalan Parliament passed legislation to effectively limit private hire platforms to limousines, also spoke at the anti-Uberisation conference, telling attendees: “In Barcelona, they haven’t managed to get rid of us. They’ve tried twice but we are still there.
“If we don’t all unite, and create a big lobby – which is actually an anti-lobby – we are going to face difficulties. So we need to work at EU level all the way down.”
France Insoumise MEP Leïla Chaibi revealed to the conference that EU security had contacted her saying they were concerned about how to handle such a large taxi march in the city. Bouchal later tweeted that “the police arrested me administratively to break up the peaceful demonstration of our colleagues who travelled miles to come and denounce the Uber/Politics cronyism. First time in my life that I am the subject of [an arrest].”
While platform workers joined the mobilisation in solidarity, there was some visible tensions between taxi leaders over the presence of the gig workers.
“We want the presumption of employment established clearly”
The event in the Parliament was organised by Chaibi, a key campaigner for platform workers’ rights who leads the work of ’The Left’ group in the European Parliament in this respect. It is the third time such an ‘Alternatives to Uberisation’ conference has been held in the Belgian capital, with the conference last year coming shortly before the European Commission’s Platform Work Directive proposal, which backed the demand of campaigners and the majority of the European Parliament for a presumption of employment in the platform economy.
If that proposal is implemented it’s anticipated that 5.5 million out of 28 million platform workers in the European Union would have their status changed from self-employed to employee, as well as regulating algorithmic management and greater transparency from platforms. However, the proposal still has a long way to go before becoming legislation, as both the European Parliament and European Commission must analyse and agree on any amendments to the proposal. That process is currently ongoing, and Euractiv reported on Monday that they had seen documents showing that the French Government has been lobbying to water down the proposal, a position favoured by the platforms, which have been almost uniformly opposed to the Commission’s plan.
Chaibi told attendees that the platform workers’ rights movement was instrumental in securing a positive proposal from the European Commission, including by lobbying the responsible commissioner, Nicolas Schmit, directly after last year’s Alternatives to Uberisation conference. However, she said that the proposal was now under threat as the corporate lobby has re-grouped, and therefore “pressure needs to be put now on the European Parliament and the European Council.”
“We’re going to get a directive on the presumption of employment, but a lot of people can imagine that they can strip it of any worth,” she added. “We have to make sure that does not happen and we have a directive that forces platforms to take their responsibility as employers.”
Also addressing the issue of the Directive, Ludovic Voet, confederal secretary for the European Trade Union Confederation, said currently it was “a good Directive in theory” but warned that even as it currently stands it will “require a worker in court to win the case to trigger this employment, so the classification is still in the hands of the employer”.
The only alternative to workers going to court would be workplace inspections by labour inspectorates, Voet explained, but “workplace inspection is underfunded”. The five criteria for considering a platform worker to be an employee (two of the five must be met, under the current proposal) are also too “vague”, according to the Belgian trade union leader, making it harder for workers to fight it in court and easier for platforms to obfuscate.
“We want the presumption of employment established clearly,” he surmised.
Victoria Labatut, a labour inspector in the French Ministry of Labour and member of the CGT trade union, concurred with Voet that the five criteria in the proposal was a problem because it “is very easy for platforms to go round this criteria, and we can’t trust them to act in good faith”.
“The danger is we see new contentions which will mean more court cases for workers, and that will be running in circles,” Labatut added.
Instead, she argued, the Directive should be reformed so that there is either a straight forward presumption of employment or specific conditions which would allow for the presumption of employment to be reversed.
Spanish Labour Minister and Vice-President Yolanda Díaz also addressed the conference via a recorded video, stating that “the future of social Europe is based on our capacity to provide a European alternative to Uberisation”. Díaz defended the Platform Work Directive, saying “it’s up to the challenge we face” and that the Spanish Government are “working to make the directive as ambitious as possible”. Spain becomes President of the European Council in July 2023, a position which could potentially be influential in impacting on the final stages of the Directive negotiations.
Díaz led the “Rider’s Law” legislation in the Spanish Congress, which for the first time in Europe established a presumption of employment for food delivery couriers from August 2021. However, Spain’s largest food delivery platform, Glovo, has consistently refused to comply, continuing to hire 80% of its workers on an independent contractor basis. On Wednesday [7 September], Uber Eats followed Glovo’s example by beginning to hire workers on a freelance basis again for the first time since the Rider’s Law came into force, raising doubts about the credibility of the law.
Nuria Soto from RidersXDerechos in Spain told the conference that the example of Uber Eats showed that legislation was not enough, arguing that strong “enforcement mechanisms” are also required.
“Workers can take back this data power”
In the second session on algorithmic management, the focus was on workers’ data rights. Jessica Pidoux, director of PersonalData.io, said that her NGO had used GDPR data requests to investigate 40 platforms on behalf of workers.
“They have very precise data on what you are doing, online and in the world, creating a dependence which is invisible,” she said, calling for more workers to work with the NGO in pursuing data requests, which once accessed can be used as an organising tool, to take forward legal cases against the platforms and to make the case for regulatory change.
“Workers can take back this data power,” Pidoux argued.
Antonio Casilli, Professor of Sociology at Télécom Paris, told attendees about his investigations into the working conditions of microworkers, who complete short tasks online such as identifying images, on platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk. Casilli said that these workers, along with cloud workers more broadly and data workers, amount to an estimated 160 million global workforce, but have struggled to organise in the way that platform riders and drivers have because they are usually based in low-income countries, work in isolation from one another and are geographically dispersed.
He called for more to be done to make the platform workers’ movement conducive to these workers, arguing that they are “critical” to the operations of the platforms and therefore could be a major asset in building workers power.
The conference also heard from Le Monde investigative journalist Daniel LeLoup, who worked on the Uber Files revelations. LeLoup said that the files showed that “the European Commission turned out to be a very good tool for Uber”, as it was easier for corporate lobbyists to capture this one institution than the 27 EU member-states under its rubric.
France Insoumise MP Danielle Simonnet also spoke, introducing the ‘International popular enquiry commission on Uberisation’, which – in light of the Uber Files revelations – plans to shine a spotlight on the wrongdoing of platforms and to investigate the relationship between platform lobbies and the state.
The conference also heard speeches from three platform workers: Riccardo Mancuso of RidersXDiretti in Italy, Xavi Ferrer from the Gorillas Workers Collective and Luz Myriam Fique Cardenas from ‘UnidApp’ in Colombia.
Platform Workers’ General Assembly
The day prior to the conference saw a General Assembly of platform workers held in the city, attended by 25 different organisation from 15 countries. Workers shared experiences from their respective struggles and agreed on some points for common work.
Ferrer tweeted of the General Assembly: “Very good assembly in Brussels with riders and drivers organisations. Two agreements: support the EU Platform Work Directive against Uberisation with decentralised mobilisations and have periodic meetings to share organising strategies, set common demands, organise campaigns, etc.”
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