Gig Economy Project – European Parliament demands EU Commission delivers rights for platform workers

Overwhelming vote of MEPs in favour of a legal presumption of employment in the platform sector is non-binding, but it applies pressure on to the European Commission to deliver

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This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust

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Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have applied pressure on the European Commission to deliver a Directive which guarantees labour rights for platform workers, after they overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution demanding strong action.

The vote on Thursday [16 September] was non-binding on the Commission, which is a non-elected body responsible for the development of EU legislation, but the resounding vote of 524 in favour, 39 against and 124 abstentions sent a clear message to the jobs and social rights Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, who is responsible for introducing the platform worker legislation before the end of the year. If passed, the legislation will apply across the EU.

The resolution summarised a report led by Sylvie Brunet, a French MEP for the Democratic Movement, who spoke to its key recommendations during a debate on the resolution on Monday [13 September].

First, reinforced social protection: whatever the status of platform workers they should have minimal social protections. This means that all platform workers should have the right to receive compensation if there are accidents or work related illnesses,” Brunet stated.

She added: “We also want to see improved and more transparent working conditions. These digital platforms need to be able to communicate the essential information on working conditions, and information on income and how this is calculated, and there should be a right to consultation as well. It’s important that workers have the right to appeal if their accounts are suspended. They must have the right to work for a number of platforms and have the right to their own data as well.

Thirdly we want the right to collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is absolutely key when it comes to improving the conditions of these workers. Platform workers, even if they are independent or self-employed, should be able to organise themselves collectively as well, and I call upon the European Commission to specify that this does not go against competition [law].

We also need to see more legal certainty for these platform workers and for the platforms. This has been a real point of debate for us. That is something that will be positive for the platforms as well. That will lead to greater clarity and will help with fairer conditions in respect to the traditional economy as well.

I think it is important to have a clear working relationship and the right procedures in place for workers who contest their status. That does not mean that we would automatically consider all platform workers as salaried workers; the self-employed would continue to be considered as such. What is important is the reversal of the burden of proof, so that if a platform worker contests their professional status it is the employer that carries the burden to show that there is no employment relationship. Let us be clear, we are not talking about a third status for platform workers.

We need a safe and secure environment for these workers with the right professional protective equipment and they must be covered by accident insurance if they work in the transport industry, for example. They also need to be able to disconnect from the platform without suffering any negative consequences. We want to protect platform workers against violence or harassment by putting in mechanisms in place where they can alert the platforms if there are problems.

Next, it is important to look at the development of competences as well. Training should be made available to platform workers by the platform itself, as to the use of the site, the app, the work to be done, and also health & safety. Platform workers, especially those less qualified, should be able to receive training so they can improve their skills and develop their employability.

Finally, last but not least, there needs to be non-discriminatory algorithmic management. These algorithms have revolutionised work and we want to make sure these algorithms are transparent, non-discriminatory, ethical and reliable. In order to do this we need to make sure that the main information with regards to working conditions are clearly and legibly explained. These algorithms dictate how work is divided, the interactions, deactivations and tariffs as well. Management of these algorithms has to be done by humans. This might seem obvious but it’s important that workers have the possibility to appeal in these circumstances.”

Responding, Schmit said that the Commission “will come up with a proposal which without a doubt will take inspiration from the report that you have drafted.”

The Gig Economy Project reported earlier this month that Schmit and his cabinet had held 10 meetings with platform company lobbyists about the legislation this year, including US ride hail giant Uber. Schmit acknowledged that the legislation’s ramifications will reverberate globally.

This will be for Europe but it will go beyond Europe,” he said. “We can see that the very same issues, very same concern, and the very same demands are coming from all over, including those places in the world where the digital economy was invented, in California specifically. So the time has come to act.”

Schmit said the “first element” was to provide “legal certainty” for platforms, many of which operate across Europe but with a patchwork of regulations in different countries. Secondly, the ”certainty, safety and security for those who work for these platforms”.

Whatever status an individual may have, they should have labour market guarantees,” he added, describing the Brunet report’s advocacy for flipping the burden of proof of labour status from the worker to the employer as a “good solution” and “extremely important for all those who work on the platforms”.

On Artificial Intelligence, he added that: “We cannot and will not be the objects of robots. We would never accept a situation where AI does not have a human touch. So platform workers should not be able to lose their employment or be discriminated against solely because the algorithm is built in such a way that it would cause them to lose their employment.”

Speaking during the debate, just a few speakers spoke against the resolution with the vast majority strongly in favour. Four MEPs described current gig work conditions as akin to “slavery”.

Kim Van Sparrentak, MEP for the Dutch Greens, congratulated “the Dutch Uber drivers for their victory”, as it was announced on the same day as the debate that the Netherlands’ highest court became the latest to determine that Uber drivers are employees not self-employed.

[Legal] cases have overwhelmingly been won by the workers,” Sparrentak added. “You might think that Uber, Glovo, Deliveroo and other platforms would then bury the hatch, play nice and hire their workers but instead they do everything to keep operating outside the law or to change the rules in their favour with workers paying the price.

Platform workers going in to court are fighting an uphill battle against the platforms army of lawyers and resources, and that is why we the lawmakers need to step in, and that’s why I’m very pleased with this report, because we give a clear mandate for strict rules and for once and for all to tell these platforms that we must protect these workers and that we have a model based on solidarity.”

Leïla Chaibi, France Insoumise MEP who leads the Left in the European Parliament’s work on platform workers, also spoke during the debate, warning that the consequences of not acting to ensure a presumption of employment status in the platform sector would set a dangerous precedent for all workers in Europe.

If today we allow Uber to have workers under its orders without assuming its responsibility as an employer, tomorrow it is all employees whose status will be threatened to be replaced by a false independent,” she said.

Because if this becomes legal, why wouldn’t companies replace their employees with Uber workers? Rather than listening to the platform lobbies, let’s listen to the judges who are denouncing this situation throughout Europe.”

Speaking at the end of the debate, Schmit appeared to concur with Chaibi’s assessment.

If we accept this return to 19th century practices, it will not just happen on the platforms, it will happen everywhere,” the Commissioner stated. “Because it will create a new dynamic, a new competition between platforms and more traditional businesses. Why should traditional businesses comply with rules and social protections and platforms don’t need to respect that? So it is also an issue of fair competition between different business models.”

After the vote, Chaibi said it was “workers 1 – lobbies 0, return match to follow”.

She added: “We managed to inflict a clear-cut defeat on the digital platform lobbies. The emissaries of Uber, Deliveroo and Glovo are now up in arms against this report, who wanted to use it as an opportunity to legalise the current situation of massive fraud based on false self-employment.”

The Left in the European Parliament is organising a “transnational Forum of Alternatives to Uberisation” to be held in Brussels on 27 October.

Wednesday [15 September] saw the end of the second-phase of the European Commission’s social partners consultation on platform work, with the EC’s proposal due to be published on 8 December.

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