Piero Valmassoi, an EU policy expert specialised in the platform economy and sustainable urban mobility, takes a look into Uber and the other ridehail and food delivery platforms’ lobbying strategy over the EU platform work directive, finding we should be as worried about Uber’s actions in the present as those in the past
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THE Uber Files revelations have exposed the tactics Uber used between 2013 to 2017 to grow its business, one of which was to buy political influence and access, including at the level of the European Union. The documents have revealed that Uber held 34 meetings with European Commission officials from 2014 to 2016, 12 of which were undisclosed. The leaks have also shown that former European Commission vice-president and digital chief Neelie Kroes was lobbying at the highest levels on behalf of Uber despite not having completed a mandatory ‘cooling-off’ period of 18 months. This gives some insight into how important lobbying is to the business model of platforms.
The revelations come at an interesting time, as the negotiations on the Directive on improving working conditions on platform workers, proposed by the European Commission on 9 December 2021, are entering the most important phase of discussion in the European Parliament and in the Council of the European Union. The Directive proposes a presumption of employment for platform workers, which is a direct threat to Uber’s business model of hiring drivers on a self-employed basis in every country except the UK (where the platform is still not fully complying with the Supreme Court decision, which mandates to pay workers also for waiting time). So now that we know what Uber’s political influence strategy was between 2013 to 2017, can you imagine what they have been doing to get their own way over the platform work directive?
Unfortunately, the Uber Files do not go up to the present day, but we can nonetheless get some sort of idea of what Uber and the other big ride-hail and food delivery platforms have been trying to do to influence the Directive by closely examining the information that is publicly available. The picture that emerges is not as scandalous as the Uber Files, but it does show a multi-pronged lobbying strategy with the objective of watering down the proposed legislation to protect their business models against any effort to regulate them and guarantee better working conditions for gig workers.
The platform lobbying effort has been constant in recent years, with a steady increase of financial resources and staff, not only to avoid any type of reclassification of workers, but – as Fairwork underlined – “to narrowly define the parameters within which the debate about platform working conditions can take place”.
A comprehensive report written in September 2019 by the Corporate Europe Observatory, Uberinfluential, identified a series of lobbying strategies that digital platforms have been adopting vis-a-vis European law-makers. ‘Uberinfluential’ reveals an increasingly cooperative attitude towards regulators, in a sophisticated lobbying attempt masked as progressivism. This strategy is confirmed by the Uber Files, which also show an apparent U-turn in Uber tactics in approaching policymakers since the new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took office in 2017, in an attempt to polish its reputation.
Ahead of the platform work directive, there was a two-phase consultation period that started in February 2021 and ended in September 2021. The Gig Economy Project reported last September how the lobbying activity of digital platforms had intensified in advance of the publication of the Directive, in terms of the number of meetings between platforms (or their industry organisations) and the Commissioner for Social Rights Nicolas Schmit and members of his cabinet. In this context, it is important to remember that meetings between social partners and the European Commission that are registered in the EU Transparency Register only concern hearings at the level of the Commissioners, their cabinet, and the Directors General (DGs) (and as the Uber Files show, not all of these are recorded as they should be). The meetings with policy officers at a lower level, which represent a common practice for industry representatives operating in Brussels, are not recorded.
Meetings with the European Commission are only one of the elements of a multifaceted lobbying toolbox at the disposal of digital platforms to influence public policy. The lobbying strategies and the messages used by gig economy companies are diversified, both in terms of the policy field (employment, transport, innovation), and concerning the level of governance that is targeted.
Corporate Europe Observatory listed in its 2019 report three main strategies used by Uber and similar platforms when it comes to pressurising decision-makers on key legislation: having former EU Commission or Parliament members on their payroll or advisory board, the so-called ‘revolving doors’ technique; using their membership in advocacy groups, trade associations and think tanks, as mouthpieces of their claims; and, transitioning away from the ‘move fast and break things’ approach typically associated with tech start-up’s into a more reassuring, collaborative attitude towards policy-makers.
These approaches have also been the basis of the platforms’ blueprint for influencing decision-making with respect to the Directive on platform workers. They have been supported by an updated and varied PR narrative that presented the platforms not only as providers of key innovative services for consumers, but also as partners of local governments in decarbonising transport and logistics, and as responsible employers that fight against outdated regulation hampering innovation.
The recently-founded industry organisations MOVE EU and Delivery Platforms Europe are two membership associations that bring together the main platforms involved in on-demand mobility and food delivery, respectively registered in September 2020 and in September 2021. Both have been very active in representing platforms in a wide range of lobbying activity during the last year and a half. Uber is represented in both groups.
After the release of the proposal by the European Commission, one of the main focuses of the corporate lobbying of the two associations has been targeting members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who are currently discussing the Commission’s text in the employment (EMPL) and transport (TRAN) parliamentary committees.
The lobbying tools proved to be numerous: organising or participating in meetings and events with (conservative) MEPs (1, 2, 3, 4); participating as experts in sessions of the EMPL and TRAN parliamentary committees; and targeting EMPL and TRAN committee members with direct requests for meetings, as well as sending them written input with their requests for changes to the proposed directive.
These actions contributed to the formation of a group of conservative MEPs, who have been very vocal lately in channeling the platforms’ demands and recently co-signed an article which essentially reflects the whole platform narrative in opposition to the presumption of employment, arguing that reclassification would have negative consequences for job creation and digital innovation.
More importantly, we can see the influence of platforms and their lobby groups on the amendments to the proposed directive filed not only by EPP, but also by Renew Europe and ECR members of the parliament. One of the most relevant among the many examples of this alignment can be found in an amendment proposed by this group, which echoes one of the most typical proposals of platforms on platform workers: instead of employment status, there should be a non-binding industry-level “code of conduct based on the agreement among relevant stakeholders as a form of self-regulation focused on improving working conditions of genuine self-employed persons performing platform work […]”.
However, the set of lobbying arguments put forward by platforms is manifold and are adaptable to the needs of the moment. For example, the argument that workers love their flexibility has been the subject of meetings with EU Commission officials and mentioned in EMPL parliamentary committee meetings, again with the objective of fostering the myth that people cannot work flexibly if they are employees.
Another tool utilised by platforms has been commissioning studies and papers to academia, think tanks and consultancies, to feed this in as “evidence-based” contributions to policy making, another concerning practice which has been highlighted in the Uber Files. The topics of these studies do not only cover employment issues, but also other policy fields that are affected by the business of ride-hailing and food deliveries platforms, such as urban transport and congestion. The ultimate objective of these papers are clear: providing a counterargument to the plethora of academic research which have demonstrated the negative effects of the platforms’ business and employment models on working conditions, traffic congestion in cities, emissions, and road safety. It is important to underline how the supposedly independent studies presented by platforms are either based on data provided directly by them, or are written by think tanks that count as members of the platforms themselves, for example CERRE. The Uber Files have shown that the company is willing to pay academics handsomely in return for favourable publications.
On the other side of the EU legislative spectrum, represented by the Council of the European Union, much less information is publicly available. This feeds into the impression that corporate access to the representatives of the member states is even more direct, and it is easier for platforms to target this institution during negotiations. We have seen that during the first months of work of the Council, the French presidency of the Council has been part of a coalition that include North and East Europe member states which are rejecting more protection for platform workers. This falls in line with the Uber Files disclosures about personal links with French President Macron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, and other connections, for example with the former prime minister of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
A new, more congenial strategy
These tactics fit very well with their new, more congenial strategy towards regulation and regulators, openly endorsing new social and environmental protections, but only if aligned to their business models. For this purpose, it is interesting to note the choice of words used in statements, position papers, and contributions at meetings. This discourse is based on a positive language and dovish talking points that theoretically include full support for new standards and protections, commitments to improve working conditions, and dialogue with authorities. But this cooperative attitude stops when it comes to discussing any change that could concretely translate into regulatory requirements on employers for decent conditions and pay for workers, namely reclassification, presumption of employment, and full transparency on algorithmic management – as in the proposed EU directive. According to this subtle strategy, policy-makers, local administrators, and public transport authorities are allies of platforms in constructive ‘public-private partnerships’; in reality, PPPs are big business opportunities for platforms to get financially lucrative contracts with the state.
The strategy of diversifying lobbying targets and enlarging the network of possible partners in the dialogue about regulation is increasingly evident. We can see this at work by analysing the growing efforts of platforms, particularly Uber, to become partners of European NGOs in advocacy of environmental and sustainable transport objectives, for example the transition to electric vehicles and the integration with public transport services. The idea that ride-hailing services can be a main player in reducing emissions through electric and on-demand mobility has been questioned by several studies proving that Uber-like services actually increase pollution and congestion in the urban context. However, presenting the platforms as leaders of the green transition towards electric and shared mobility serves as a further smokescreen that helps them build a good reputation with policymakers and avoid more delicate questions about their employment models. In practice, the greenwash strategy is pursued through co-signing corporate pledges and official commitments, and participation in conferences and fora that discuss ways forward to decarbonise mobility and logistics. Some examples are: the endorsements of European NGOs to the 2020 Uber SPARK report that promises to help drivers to move to fully electric vehicles (a commitment which, one year later, Uber is already falling behind); co-signing pledges and manifestos for transition to electric mobility; entering EU-level fora on sustainable mobility; and again becoming members of associations advocating for electric mobility, such as AVERE.
Another topic on which platforms started to act as institutional partners is the cooperation with public transport authorities and cities on sustainable mobility policy objectives. Uber is now a member of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and regularly calls for cooperation with public transport authorities – defined as the “backbone” of urban transport – as well as for the integration with its services. In the UK, Uber now offers train and coach tickets via its app, coherent with its stated objective of becoming the “Amazon of transportation”. Bear in mind that this is the same company which explicitly stated in its IPO prospectus that its core business is in direct competition and a substitute of public transport, and whose services have led to a decline in public transport ridership.
Finally, with the purpose of polishing its questionable reputation in urban mobility, platforms also use empty words to pretend they are on the front line for the road safety of drivers, couriers, and other road users. Their carefully crafted catchphrases on such a delicate topic sound all the more inadequate knowing that academic research proves that pressure due to their business models is one of the most important factors of hazardous road behaviour.
Digital labour platforms are fighting tooth and nail against the Directive to avoid coming to terms with the fact that their business model is not just that of an intermediary which matches customers with independent contractors. It remains to be seen to what extent these platforms will manage to influence the EU Commission, the Members of the EU Parliament, and the Member States in the Council of the EU. Following the Uber Files, labour unions are are already calling for an investigation at EU-level and the suspension of accreditation of Uber’s EU lobbyists to the European parliament. One would hope that the recent revelations will make public officials and politicians think twice about the sort of businesses they are regulating and how much influence they want these companies to have over legislation which will directly affect the lives of millions of workers across Europe.
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