The continual abstention of the EU’s largest country is proving decisive in shaping the delicate balance of power among member-states over gig work regulation.
Platform workers, academics and European politicians have criticised the German Government for refusing to take a position on the EU Platform Work Directive, despite the proposed reform being on the agenda of member-states for over two years.
Germany has abstained or indicated it would abstain in every crunch meeting that has taken place on the Platform Work Directive at the Council of the EU, the body which represents member-states in the European Union. The most recent was on 22 December under the Spanish Presidency, but the government also abstained during the Swedish Presidency and the Czech Presidency before that, the first vote taking place in December 2022.
The reform, which could potentially provide millions of app-based workers in all 27 member-states of the European Union with employment rights as well as new rights in relation to algorithmic management, has been on the desk of the Council since January 2022, after the European Commission published its draft proposal in December 2021.
The criticism comes ahead of another vote of the Council on Wednesday [24 January] under the Belgian Presidency, with all indications suggesting that the German Government is set to abstain again.
Asked about the abstention policy, a spokesperson from the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs told the Gig Economy Project: “The German Federal Government wants to enable companies to make best use of the potential of the platform economy. At the same time, good working conditions and social security must also be guaranteed in the platform economy.
“The Federal Government is closely monitoring the trilogue negotiations on the draft directive on improving working conditions in platform work. Talks within the Federal Government on the draft directive are ongoing. The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is committed to an ambitious directive on fair platform work at European level.”
The abstention of Germany is critical due to the delicate balance of power on the Council over platform work regulation. A group of around 12 states led by France are strongly resistant to employment status in the platform economy, while a smaller group of around 8 states led by Spain are strongly in favour, with the remaining states oscillating between the two. Under EU rules, 55% of states and 65% of states representing the total EU population are needed for the Council to agree to new legislation, so the German abstention makes it almost impossible for the pro-employment status side to secure the 65% of population share hurdle, since Germany and France combined make-up 33.8% of the EU population.
Commenting, Kim Van Sparrentak MEP, who is responsible for platform work for the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament, told the Gig Economy Project (GEP) that it was “a pity that one of the biggest members states of the EU is not participating in a debate over some of the most precarious workers in our Union.”
The German Government is a coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), with SPD labour minister Hubertus Heil responsible for platform work. Van Sparrentak laid the blame for the government’s abstention at the door of the largest party in the government, the SPD.
“The SPD has decided they don’t want to do anything for workers at the European level, that’s why they have vetoed any participation from the German Government,” she said.
Asked about the influence of the Greens in the government, Van Sparrentak said she had “spoken a lot to my German colleagues in the Greens about it, they have been trying a lot, but there is a veto from the SDP and the only way to circumvent that is if [German Chancellor] Olaf Scholz said ‘we are pushing ahead’, and he has not decided to do so.”
She added that “SPD colleagues here [at the European Parliament] have also told me [that the policy is] ‘we don’t want anything on workers’ rights and social affairs at the European level’, so we are stuck.”
The Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, which SDP is part of, has been consistent in supporting a strong presumption of employment, with the EP rapporteur for the Platform Work Directive being led by a member of the S&D group, Elisabetta Gualmini MEP.
Asked about the abstention policy of Germany by GEP, an S&D group spokesperson laid the blame at the door of the liberal FDP, the smallest party in the coalition, stating: “The Group regrets the fact that the liberals in the coalition government will be held responsible for blocking such an important file, as they are the ones forcing the coalition into an extremely bad position.”*
Denis Neumann, a researcher on platform work at the Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest, who has written about the platform economy in Germany, told GEP that he also believed FDP were chiefly responsible, stating that “while the Greens and the SPD were inclined to endorse the Directive, the neoliberal FDP obstructed a unified position”.
Neumann said that FDP “party representatives regard the directive as undermining “traditional” solo self-employment in Europe, outrageously arguing that it would essentially lead to its widespread elimination. In their opposition, they claim to represent self-employed groups not targeted by the directive, stoking fears that it would strip highly skilled IT consultants of their livelihoods.”
“This stance overlooks the reality of precarious gig work in Europe, where the platform work model, prevalent across many countries, can be seen as an attack on the legal protection of the employment relationship,” he added.
One of the curiosities of the German abstention policy is that Germany’s current labour laws means that platform workers in the country like food delivery couriers and ridehail drivers are almost all employed already, one of the few countries in Europe where that is the case.
Mo, a courier for Lieferando (Just Eat), Germany’s largest food delivery platform which does employ its riders and publicly supports employment status in the Directive, told GEP that platform workers in Germany currently have stronger protections than in other EU states, and therefore he was concerned that the German abstention was “an indirect attack on the legal situation of platform workers in Germany” as a “weak Directive may put into question the stronger legal position of platform workers” in the central European country.
Mo, who is a member of the Lieferando Workers’ Collective in Berlin, added that he thought platform workers like him should be “outraged” by the government’s abstention and that he was “ashamed” that the outcome of this policy could be to make the situation “for precarious workers in the rest of the EU even worse”.
“Party representatives regard the Directive as undermining ‘traditional’ solo self-employment in Europe, outrageously arguing that it would essentially lead to its widespread elimination. In their opposition, they claim to represent self-employed groups not targeted by the Directive, stoking fears that it would strip highly skilled IT consultants of their livelihoods,” Nuemann explained.
He added that the FDP position “overlooks the reality of precarious gig work in Europe, where the platform work model, prevalent across many countries, can be seen as an attack on the legal protection of the employment relationship.”
Oğuz Alyanak, a postdoctoral researcher at the Fairwork project at the University of Oxford, who has previously researched platform work in Berlin, told GEP that he was “deeply disappointed in Germany’s stance”.
Alyanak cited numerous demonstrations and wildcat strikes in the German gig economy, most notably of Gorillas’ grocery delivery couriers in Berlin in 2021, as evidence that platform workers need better social protections.
“Despite all their efforts, and all the hype in German media, German politicians chose to abstain – which screams nothing other than a blatant ignorance of the daily struggles that platforms workers face in Germany,” he added.
The Belgian Presidency’s new Platform Work Directive text is a watered-down version of the provisional agreement which the Spanish Presidency had agreed with the European Parliament in December, before the Council struck it down just before Christmas.
Van Sparrentak, who is second-in-command to Gualmini on the European Parliament side of the ‘trilogue’ negotiations, said the new Belgian text was “even further away from the Parliament’s position” which will make it “even more difficult to find a bridge between the Council and the Parliament”.
If both sides can’t reach an agreement on a common text by around mid-February, when the European parliamentary term starts to wind down before elections in June, there will be no Platform Work Directive.
*This comment was included after initial publication of the article.
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