Message from platform workers’ representing 57 organisations in 18 countries was clear: full employment status, regulation of the algorithms, and build the international strength of the movement
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com
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
Platform workers from 18 countries and 57 organisations gathered in Brussels on Wednesday [27 October], in a major ‘Alternatives to Uberisation’ forum.
Organised by ‘The Left in the European Parliament’, around 150 people gathered in the ‘Le Tricote’ in Brussels to hear from food delivery riders, agricultural union leaders, academics and politicians from as far afield as Brazil to the United States to Portugal.
A common theme emerged from the speakers: that workers on digital labour platforms are employees, the algorithms of platforms’ need to be regulated, and an international movement of platform workers is growing and increasingly interconnected.
The event comes just six weeks before the European Commission is set to publish its legislative proposal for regulating platform workers on 8 December, which once enacted will be the law in all 27 member-states.
The platform workers at the forum are set to meet Nicolas Schmit, the EU Commissioner for jobs & social rights who is chiefly responsible for the legislative proposal, on Wednesday evening. The day will end with a protest action organised by the workers.
Speaking as the forum drew to a close and with #StopUberisation trending on Twitter, Leïla Chaibi, MEP for France Insoumise and one of the chief organisers of the forum, declared the event “a success”.
“The platforms thought they could just continue to manage their business without being bothered, continue dictating the law as they intended too, using their lobby to defend their interests,” she said. “But you show the lobby that matters is the popular lobby that is present in this room. You have forced them to listen to you, to hear you.
“We need to continue putting pressure on them until December.”
Sessions on ‘the challenges of algorithmic management’, ‘how to prevent the break-up of labour law?’ and ‘international organisation in the face of transnational platforms’ were held, before a ‘general assembly of platform workers’ took place in the afternoon.
EU Commission Directive
The European Commission’s upcoming directive on platform work was a major preoccupation of the forum, with clear proposals made for what should be included in the text.
Maria de Paz Lima, expert on the sociology of work and industrial relations in Portugal, stated that it was very important to have a European Directive that frames [the platforms] obligations, that clearly states what their obligations are, that they are responsible, that they have the responsibility of an employer towards an employee. I think that has to be the starting point otherwise it will be very difficult to move forward.
“What is an employer? What is a self-employed worker? This needs to be defined by the Directive.”
She added that there may be a role for creating an independent regulator to “control the algorithms fo the platforms”.
“The algorithms need to be controlled – they should not control us.”
Odile Chagny, from “Shares & Workers” in France, said that the Commission’s Directive was only going to open up a new phase of struggle in Europe’s platform economy.
“Nothing assures us that the rights we are going to lean on are going to be effective,” she argued.
Ludovic Voet, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said that all that was required from the EU Commission was to apply the “conventions” of labour rights won by workers in other sectors many years ago.
“We want minimum wage, decent conditions and security, but we want years of union fights that have led to decent conditions in some sectors to also be applied to new domains,” he said. “The conventions simply need to be applied to the platform sector.”
Voet added: “This is a historic moment we have to influence at the European level and also apply at the national level.”
Mafalda Brilhante, a feminist activist and member of ‘Precárixs Inflexíveis’ in Portugal, spoke about how the country may shortly vote for platform workers to be hired as employees, as Portugal’s current system of using third-party intermediaries between the platform workers and platforms is breaking down, with intermediaries joining platform workers in protesting against changes made unilaterally to the algorithm by the platforms.
Brilhante said: “In Portugal we vote for the state budget today but we don’t know yet whether what we are discussing here is going to be tackled or not [by Portugal’s Government], even if we have done all we could to achieve that.
“We have asked for specific legislation to be developed to protect those workers, to allow for an employment relationship. Platforms have decided to stop working together with the intermediaries, as a way to put pressure on left-wing parties and to hinder – they say ‘if you try to change anything we are not going to work with the intermediaries anymore’.”
Martin Manteca, organiser of the SEIU in California which organises private-hire drivers, stated plainly: “We demand the [workers] are recognised as employees. They are not independent, they are employees. The independence myth was introduced by the platforms to inject confusion into the discussion.”
“What do platform workers want”?
The forum was illuminating for revealing how platform workers see themselves, in terms of the issues they face on the ground and the question of employment status.
Martin Willems from the United Freelancers in Belgium, a union of self-employed workers, accepted that the platforms had convinced many platform workers that they want to be self-employed, but in reality the practical things that workers’ want moves them towards a pro-labour position.
“The majority of delivery people don’t want to be employed,” he said. “They reply that they refuse to be employed. What do those workers want? That waiting times be paid, that they have a guaranteed minimum wage, that they have work insurance, for social dialogue to speak with their employer to address issues. When you see all these requests you see all of these elements are stated in labour work law.
“They want to have the same rights as other workers. So of course that would be the solution. The platforms use the argument of liberty to deny social protection. There is this scam of saying we give you liberty in exchange you have no rights. No, we want both. We want rights for those workers but we also want more autonomy and less subordination.”
Nuria Soto from ‘RidersXDerechos’ in Spain agreed with Willems, stating: “Platforms are using any element to say that we are our own boss. Many riders say they are self-employed, but when you ask them do you want the social security contributions which come from being a worker, they say ‘yes’. So what does the rider want, one thing or the other?”
Soto, who is also a co-founder of the Mensakas food delivery co-operative in Barcelona, said that the key is to build a sense of collectivity among all platform workers.
“The big fight is for collectivism, the union fight is key,” she said. “We can create alternatives based on the collective, not just the personal individual. The unionism and the co-operativism go hand in hand, they feed each other.”
Willems agreed that platform co-operatives could play an important role, but said that at the moment they struggle to compete with platforms backed by millions in venture capital.
“In the co-operative you are together, you are the collective, you are your own boss,” he said. “The problem today is that co-operatives are not competing on the same level as platforms. As long as those platforms don’t respect the law how can they fight on the same level? They are a niche because platforms don’t respect the law so far.”
Luciana Kasai, rider and founder of ‘Entregadores Antifascistas’ in Brazil, said that it was important for the international movement to demand “basic rights” which all riders needed globally.
“One material thing we can demand is that the companies provide a place for us to use the toilet, to eat…these are basic rights that we can go for together as an international alliance,” she said.
“A message of hope”
The conference also heard from Alberto Areta, coordinator of the farmers’ associations, COAG, in Spain.
Areta said that “there are links between what is being discussed today and what is happening in the agriculture sector”, stating that the same process of monopolisation that was occurring in food delivery and private hire was also occurring in agriculture
“Oligopolistic concentration is at the start and end of the food chain,” Areta said. “We also have an Uberisation process; the countryside workers are becoming fake autonomous.”
He explained that big investment funds and foreign capital were “getting into this sector and are looking for an easy profit.”
“We need a regulation of the market. We need to organise against big corporations and foreign capital in the food industry.”
Alberto “Tito” Alvarez from taxi union Elite Taxi Barcelona responded to Areta that they would be willing to do whatever they can to support the struggles of rural workers, a hand of solidarity which Areta responded to positively.
“The farmers sector was in the street in 2019, protesting daily,” Areta explained. “Covid started so we stopped. But all the farmer organisations were gathered in the streets [pre-pandemic]. We want to be heard and convey our struggle to all the sectors…We need a cross-cutting response.”
Jérôme Pimot, co-founder and president of CLAP (‘Collective of Autonomous Platform Delivery Services’) in France, finished the session on the organisation of platform workers by giving a “message of hope” on the progress that had been made in the struggle since the platform economy began to grow rapidly in the early part of the 2010s.
“A lot has been achieved since 2014-2015. Believe me, we have achieved a lot. It is essential at a time like this not to lose faith.”
To sign up to the Gig Economy Project’s weekly newsletter, which provides up-to-date analysis and reports on everything that’s happening in the gig economy in Europe, leave your email here.
BRAVE NEW EUROPE is a not-for-profit educational platform for economics, politics, and climate change that brings authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge, please donate here.