Piero Valmassoi, a policy expert specialised in the platform economy and sustainable urban mobility, reports from the European Parliament on Uber whistleblower Mark MacGann’s hearing, finding that his revelations will not count for much if the platform lobby continues to win the legislative battle
A long awaited public hearing organised by the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs of the European Parliament took place on Tuesday 25 October, featuring Uber Files whistleblower Mark MacGann, ex Uber chief lobbyist for Europe, Middle East and Africa between 2014 and 2016. MacGann’s revelations spurred the publication of the Uber Files in June 2022, which showed how Uber influenced governments around the world through aggressive strategies and illegal practices aimed at bending regulations to facilitate the company’s business.
This hearing comes at an interesting time, as the EU legislative process on the Platform Work Directive is reaching a critical stage. A pervasive and coordinated lobbying effort from platforms is seeking to influence the negotiations in both the EU Parliament and the Council of the EU over the Directive, with the aim of stripping out all meaningful protection for workers.
In reaction to the platforms’ lobbying tactics, a coalition of trade unions and grassroots collectives demonstrated in front of the European Parliament before the hearing, showing their support for an ambitious Directive that would bring concrete improvements in the conditions of platform workers.
Trade union leaders said that reclassification of workers through court cases was unsustainable, and emphasised the absolute need for a general presumption of employment for all platform workers, and for the management of workers through algorithms to be subject to collective bargaining.
Key figures in the EU Parliament negotiations, such as rapporteur MEP Elisabetta Gualmini (S&D), MEP Kim Van Sparrentak (Greens/EFA), and MEP Leila Chaibi (The Left) also spoke at the demonstration and reiterated their support for platform workers’ demands and their commitment to fight against platforms’ lobbying influence on the legislative process. Gualmini emphasised the “pressures and insistent lobbying by the platforms”, defining their models as the “Middle Age of the social rights” and “unacceptable exploitation of workers”.
At the hearing, whistleblower Mark MacGann (full statement here) was the first speaker to take the floor, in a program that also included the EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit, Maastricht University assistant professor Andreea Nastase, French drivers’ INV union leader Brahim Ben Ali, and the director of Uber EU Public Policy Zuzana Púčiková.
It is worth reflecting on three extracts of MacGann’s statement that reflect elements that are still at the centre of Uber’s public policy strategy towards governments and the media.
The first one can be summarised with the mantra “Uber on”. The use of “unprecedented amounts of investor money” allowed Uber to do whatever it took to grow the company’s business, including leveraging drivers and consumers preferences to put pressure on politicians attempting to regulate Uber’s business. This strategy included meticulous work in mainstreaming a precise narrative and language that entailed the avoidance of any of the employers’ responsibility and costs towards its workers. This toxic narrative is still used both in the media and towards policymakers and was exposed by this line from MacGann on whether Uber drivers were employees: “If it walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, our instinct was to call it a duck – but the directive from management in San Francisco was: no, no, it’s a hamster!!, you must call it a hamster!!”
The second concerns the development of the algorithmic management systems that organised the workforce, with the gradual elimination of any human interaction. According to MacGann, serious breaches of privacy of the workers were the norm, such as the infiltration of Facebook and WhatsApp groups of drivers attempting to organise themselves, in order to monitor their plans. In response to a question, MacGann explained that investing so much resources in denying decent working conditions, repealing laws, and dragging workers to court qualify these practices as immoral, if not always illegal. Furthermore, he deconstructed the trite ‘Uber has changed’ narrative, by highlighting that when new management steps in, it does not destroy everything that was done before and start from scratch. In this case, the algorithmic management systems that Uber uses are still based on the ones they used during MacGann’s time.
The last reflection is particularly relevant for the current debate on the Platform Work Directive and concerns the “disproportionate power” and the “disproportionate financial resources” that tech companies enjoy and use to access the highest echelons of policymaking at all level of governance. A deep reflection is needed on these words because it seems that, despite the revelations of the Uber Files and the struggles of platform workers to organise and denounce this clear imbalance of political access at national and European level, nothing seems to have structurally changed. We have been documenting several independent reports on how the legislative process of the Platform Work Directive has been seriously influenced by the lobbying power of Uber and friends, which is as ruthless and seemingly effective as ever.
EU Commissioner Schmit was right when he says that the “future of work is at stake” in the Platform Work Directive” and that “we have to make sure that Europe is an example” in the protection of workers’ rights. Schmit expressed his concern that the negotiations in the Council of the EU are going in the direction of weakening the tools for a general presumption of employment. In light of this concerning situation, the question now is whether there is a real chance for EU institutions to achieve a Directive that provides meaningful protections and concretely improves the working conditions of platform workers, given this imbalance of power between industry and workers. When MacGann mentioned that “well-functioning, transparent lobbying is a fundamental component of parliamentary democracy”, we should really ask ourselves and our elected officials whether the EU institutional design and working procedures are effective in guaranteeing a balanced access to power between workers and industry.
Andreea Nastase, an expert on ethics and integrity of governance focused on the European Union, provided additional substance. She analysed the “revolving doors” case of former EU Commissioner for the digital agenda Neelie Kroes, who did not respect the 18-months “cooling-off period” mandated to EU Commissioners after the end of their term, which forbids them to engage in lobbying activities related to their former policy portfolio. Nastase raised doubts on the effective functioning of the EU Commission Independent Ethics Committee, the institution that oversees approvals of exemptions to this rule and that gave Neelie Kroes the permission to act as Special Envoy for Start Up Companies in the Netherlands: a role that she used to arrange meetings between Uber and senior EU officials, as reported in the UberFiles. In particular, Nastase shed light on the lack of actual independence, investigation powers, and enforcement capability of this body, as well on its transparency and its absence from the public debate. As a consequence, she explicitly defined this institutional model, which is replicated in other EU institutions, as “not effective” and “adding to the problem”.
To conclude, the floor was taken by the workers’ and platforms’ representatives. Brahim Ben Ali denounced the distortions and the abuses that the “flexibility” model of platform work entails: no protection or compensation for workers’ families in case of serious accidents or death; automatic account disconnections in cases of worker organising; lack of transparency on algorithmic management and breaches of personal data privacy. What was really missing in the Directive, Ben Ali said, was the “voice of the workers”.
On the side of Uber, Zuzana Púčiková used all the well-rehearsed arguments platforms have in their playbook in order to preserve the status quo and not provide any real improvements for workers. Among the ones she mentioned: a vision for “less cars and better jobs”, “transparent, constructive, and legitimate engagement with policymakers”; commitment to inclusion; dodgy agreements closed with trade unions (that do not cover issues of salary or employment status, such as the one concluded last week in Belgium with FGTB-UBT). In light of the Uber Files revelations, these statements are all the more inadequate and easy to debunk. What civil society should be concerned with is that, despite an ever weaker narrative, platforms still retain disproportionate access and influence over public policy and are currently fighting tooth and nail behind closed doors.
This hearing was repeatedly defined as a “historic moment” for EU policy-making and it is certainly beneficial to the public discourse to expose Uber’s practices and strategies, as MacGann’s testimony did do. But it will not mean much if the the Directive on Platform Work does not deliver for the current and future working conditions of millions of people in Europe.
The next months of the negotiations, with a vote in the EMPL Committee of the Parliament planned for the 30 November, will be crucial to see whether this hearing really represented a turning point for EU policy on the subject, or whether platforms will again find their way to bend public policy to their interests.
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