Gig Economy Project – Lora Verheecke: Take care platform workers, France is president of the EU Council

The European Union is elaborating a new law on the status of Uber, Deliveroo and other platform workers. The EU Council position, coordinated by France, is likely to diminish their labour rights and lock them into a self-employed (as opposed to employee) status, argues Lora Verheecke.

Picture by the European Parliament

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“IF you understand EU politics, it is probably that it has not been well explained to you.”

This popular saying highlights the difficulty in explaining the lengthy and often opaque process of law-making in the EU. Press articles have recently praised the Commission’s 9 December legal proposal which, once passed, will set in stone in 27 European countries the status and associated rights of platform workers in the companies we know today (Uber, Deliveroo, etc.) and for the many companies to come. But it is only a draft. The Commission proposal is now being discussed by two institutions, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. France holds the presidency of the Council until June 2022.

The French Government has already decided to lock platform workers into a self-employed status. Drivers, working long night and week-end shifts, riders, delivering under the rain and under the authority of algorithms, are not workers with rights. They are “micro-entrepreneurs”, a sub-category, with less labour rights than other workers.

Indeed, Macron is not a big fan of labour rights. For the past five years, he has weakened France’s labour laws, tried to postpone the retirement age (a reform currently on hold due to social movements and the pandemic) and he has reduced workers’ rights to unemployment benefits, especially for employees working on short-term contracts. Consequently, Macron does not promote labour rights for platform workers but a “social dialogue” instead between those entrepreneurs and platforms. However, with an almost non-existent legal framework, and very weak representation of the workers, very few labour improvements are to be expected. But the “social dialogue” spin, an idea he stole from ‘Institut Montaigne’, a corporate funded French think tank, serves Macron’s political communication.

Platform companies are very happy that they have no employees in France. They only work with “micro-entrepreneurs”. They are upset though about the new law in Spain and collective bargaining in Italy. Bolt, which operates taxis and scooters, has already lobbied the cabinet of the president of the Commission, arguing that the Spanish regulation has “negative impacts”. Platform companies are thus lobbying the French Government so that the French model can become European and thus supersede the Spanish and Italian models.

The platform companies have a very strong lobbying machine in Paris to influence EU discussions :

  • August & Debouzy, a law firm, are lobbying on this file. Their clients are unknown. One of their senior partner’s is Pierre Sellal, France’s ambassador to the EU from 2002 to 2009 and from 2014 to 2017. He has privileged and high-level access in the EU Council. He was referred to, in a hearing in the French National Assembly, as “the most informed person in France on the details of the European reality”. Another senior partner, Emmanuelle Barbara is behind the recommendation from Institut Montaigne for “social dialogue” between self-employed platform workers (not employees) and the French Government.
  • A French corporate lobby group, Association des Plateformes d’Indépendants (API), lobbies for digital platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber. Its president is the minister who created in France the precarious “micro-entrepreneurs” labour category, used by platform workers today. In October 2021, he received the French Legion of Honour, a high-level governmental distinction, by Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the EU Internal Market. A month earlier, when API organised an event, it could count on the presence of the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, a key figure of the current French presidency. 

The independent workers in Macron’s “social dialogue” are represented by UNION, whose president shared an electoral list with one of Macron’s current ministers.

Those lobbying mercenaries have already won part of the lobby battle in the EU. Not only is France not in favour of an employee status for platform workers, but it is also building an alliance with Sweden and Denmark in order to ensure platform workers remain precarious workers, not employees. The two Nordic countries think the EU is going a step too far by intruding into their national labour policies. Unfortunately, in this battlefield, the voices of the platform workers are nowhere to be heard on the EU stage, even if in the last years, we saw a lot of big mobilisations in the sector. 

We must scratch the surface of Macron’s spin and refuse the possibility of a lower workers’ status for platform workers in the EU’s platform work directive, as it will open a Pandora’s box with thousands of possibilities for our labour rights to vanish! 

Lora Verheecke (@loraenvt) is a researcher based in Brussels on EU corporate lobbying. She currently works for the Observatoire des Multinationales, a French lobby watchdog.

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