Gig Economy Project – Defeat for the platform lobby: European Parliament backs stronger Platform Work Directive

European Parliament now must negotiate its mandate with the Council of the EU, which has yet to agree its position

Picture by The Left

THE European Parliament has voted in favour of a text which would see the presumption of employment for platform workers strengthened and enhance workers’ algorithmic rights.

The vote on Thursday [2 February] saw 376 MEPs in favour, 212 against and 15 abstentions. 

The backing of the text of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL) gives the Parliament a mandate for ‘trilogue’ negotiations with the Council of the EU and the European Commission to agree on a final text for the Platform Work Directive.

The victory has been widely interpreted as a defeat for the platform lobby, led by Uber, which lobbied furiously in recent days to convince MEPs to reject the EMPL committee text.

Following the vote, Leïla Chaibi, La France Insoumise MEP who leads the work of the Left in the European Parliament Group on platform work, said the vote was a rare win for workers in the EU.

“We are coming out of months of fierce negotiations on this proposal for a directive. Lobbyists from Uber, Deliveroo and their allies worked until the 11th hour to undermine the directive, and even tried to get a deal that was worse for workers than the status quo,” she said. 

“Thanks to platform workers mobilising and the hard work convincing MEPs across the political spectrum, this proposal is balanced and good. We scored a new victory with an ambitious proposal, in favour of workers, a rarity in the European Union.”

Ludovic Voet, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said that the approved text was “a strong position that can stop the exploitation of workers in the platform economy. It will guarantee workers rights on the one hadn’t and respect the freedom of genuine self-employed on the other.”

He added that the “ball is now in the hands of EU member-states” and therefore the trade union movement will need to increase the pressure on them to make them change their pro-platform approach.”

Ahead of the vote, Elisabetta Gualmini, the rapporteur for the European Parliament on the Platform Work Directive, gave a fiery speech to the Parliament in defence of the EMPL committee’s text. The Italian Social Democrat Group MEP said she wanted to “correct the political narrative”, after receiving an e-mail from private hire platform Bolt which claimed that Gualimini’s text would “introduce an automatic reclassification of all the platform workers”. 

“This is simply not true,” she said. “It’s impossible, legally and technically.”

Gualmini added that the target of the text was to address “bogus” self-employment, which made workers “the slave of the algorithm”. 

“We defend the workers, we defend the good employers and fair competition, and we promote the human use of the algorithm, we do not want machines governing the labour market.”

Referring to the death of a young Italian rider in October while delivering for Glovo, who was subsequently auto-fired by the platform after his death, Gualmini said “never again”.

Finally, to shouts and boos from opposition MEPs, Gualmini took aim at the platform lobby’s attempts to influence MEPs towards rejecting the European Parliament text.

“I ask you to support this text which is a win for democracy,” she said. “I ask you not to disappoint millions of workers who are waiting outside. And I ask you not to surrender to multi-millionaires and powerful lobbies who try to interfere with our democratic process.”

The EMPL committee vote in December had seen 41 in favour of Gualmini’s text and 12 against, an overwhelming majority which normally means there is no need for vote of the whole European Parliament. 

However, rebel MEPs led by Sara Skyttedal of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group garnered enough support to take the EMPL committee position to a plenary vote. Skyttedal, who has hosted meetings of the Move EU platform lobby group, described the EMPL position as “severely unbalanced”, adding that: ”tens of thousands of genuinely self-employed persons that utilise the internet to find clients presumed to be employees”. This line, which the platform lobby has been pushing, has been widely rejected as a scare story, including by EPP EMPL committee co-ordinator, Dennis Radtke, who backed the text. 

The Gualmini text

A key change to the Commission’s draft proposal is that the five criteria for triggering the presumption of employment are moved out of the main part of the text to the preamble section, and instead there is criteria for proving that a worker is independent when the platform challenges the presumption of employment in court. This formulation has been heavily resisted by the platform lobby as a strict requirement to meet the European Commission criteria may give platforms a way to reinterpret their relationship with platform workers as a way of avoiding employment obligations.

There have also been significant changes to the algorithmic management part of the text with more transparency and information requests on how automated tools are used. Gualmini has stated in an interview that she believed the algorithmic management part of the Directive to be the most important. Nonetheless, there has been compromises to Gualmini’s original text, with the Social Democrat rapporteur saying that “everyone gave up something and got something” in those negotiations.

READ MORE: Algorithms, Work and the European Directive – Interview with James Farrar and Sergi Cutillas

Speaking to the Gig Economy Project in a podcast in December, James Farrar, head of Worker Info Exchange and general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) in the UK, said that the logic of the platform lobby’s opposition to a presumption of employment in the platform economy was “crazy”. 

“[The platform lobby] said that the presumption of employment burden had to lie with the worker because the platforms couldn’t sustain the pressure of having to bear the challenge of millions of workers around Europe,” he said. “But when you turn that on its head you think, ‘this is crazy’, because are the platforms saying that those millions of workers should take on the individual burden themselves and challenge the platforms? The truth is that someone has to carry this burden, and it really has to be the platforms.”

Farrar co-authored a report with Sergi Cutillas of the Observatory of Work, Algorithms and Society in Spain which made a series of proposals to strengthen the European Commission’s draft text on the Platform Work Directive, backing Gualmini’s changes to the section on employment status.

“We thought it was good to support this proposal, because we think it improves the situation of workers now. Of course it could always be better, but we think it gives enough guarantees to workers for the coming period,” he said.

What happens now?

The European Parliament’s agreed text will now have to be negotiated with the Council of the EU, which is made up of the heads of EU member-states, once that body has agreed on its position. Before the New Year, the Czech presidency of the Council failed to push through a text which would have severely watered down the European Commission’s original proposal to the extent that, according to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), it would have been worse than not passing a Directive at all. 

The presidency of the Council is now with a right-wing Swedish government which voted in favour of the Czech proposal, but must find a way to bring on board at least some of a ‘blocking minority’ group of countries, with Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain against, while Germany and Romania abstained. Nicolas Schmit, European Commissioner for jobs and social rights who was responsible for the initial draft, has called on the Council of the EU to revert to the original text.

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