Gig Economy Project – Podcast: ‘The difference between a slave and a worker’ – interview with Leïla Chaibi MEP

Leïla Chaibi is a member of the EU Parliament for France Insoumise and long year political activist



This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Foundation Menschenwürde und Arbeitswelt  

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Photo by ‘The Left’

On the website of Leïla Chaibi introducing herself as an MEP, she states that “we are going to…achieve victories by singing Bella Ciao to the Europe of Markets”. Chaibi only entered the European Parliament two years ago, so it is an ambition which is still in its infancy, but one that she is pursuing with vigour.

Chaibi, who was an activist for 18 years before heading to Strasbourg, has previously requisitioned empty buildings in Paris and occupied supermarkets in the fight against precariousness. A brief look at her Twitter timeline shows that she remains as active on street protests as she is in parliament in campaigning for platform workers’ rights.

The France Insoumise MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s ‘committee on employment and social affairs’, published a draft proposal for a Directive on the regulation of platform workers across Europe on behalf of The Left Group in November. The proposal sought to put a marker down to Brussels, as the European Commission – the non-elected body which has power to initiate legislation in the EU – is set to launch a consultation on 24 February for its Directive on the regulation of platform workers. The Directive would be binding on all EU states, and could be a decisive moment in shaping the legal status of gig workers across Europe.

The Gig Economy Project spoke to Chaibi about her proposal, expectations for the EU Commission’s Directive, and more. The podcast is segmented as follows:

2:00: Chaibi’s background and what motivates her campaigning for gig workers’ rights

6:15: Macron and the gig economy in France

13:23: The Frouin report and the “third-party security” proposal

20:45: Chaibi’s proposal for gig workers’ rights in Europe

26:39: Expectations of the EU Commission’s Directive on regulating platform workers

AN ABBREVIATED TEXT VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW IS AVAILABLE BELOW

Q: What motivates you to campaign for gig workers’ rights?

LC: I was for many years an activist in what you could call the non-standard workers’ movement, and also in the housing movement, because in France now if you want to have a flat you need to have a standard job, but now a standard job is very difficult to get. Something that used to be normal 30 years ago – having a home, a normal job – now it is very difficult. Now, it is like capitalism every time creates non-standard jobs to avoid their liabilities – not to adhere to labour laws, to avoid paying social protection.

When I started to be involved in this kind of social movement it was fighting for the rights of interns. Now we have a new kind of way for capitalism to avoid its responsibilities and it is platformisation, where workers are called self-employed but they don’t have the rights of self-employed because they work for platforms. All the judges agree that platforms have the power of subordination, the power of sanction, the power to give orders and control the worker. Usually when you have the power of subordination you have to give rights to the worker – that’s the difference between a slave and a worker.

Q: How has the gig economy evolved in France in recent years?

LC: When Emmanuel Macron was elected as President in 2017, he said: ‘I am not from the right side, I am not from the left side – France needs to be the start-up nation’. He was elected by the citizens but he was working for Uber, Deliveroo and the other platforms. The first thing he said about the difficulties young people have in finding a job was: ’oh but it’s possible now to work for yourself through Uber etc’.

In France we traditionally have big social movements, but in the VTC [‘car-with-driver’] sector it is difficult to organise because if you are on your own in your car you are not all together with other workers. It is the same for the riders. At the beginning, the first type of self-organisation from platform workers did not come form the unions, it came from collectives like CLAP [Collective of Autonomous Deliverers of Paris]. One of the slogans of CLAP is “the street is our warehouse”.

Now we have traditional unions like CGT which have become aware of the need to take care of the platform worker situation, and we have many strong movements of riders and VTC drivers.

I think the platforms are aware that the situation needs to change, and one year ago Macron tried to create a law to protect the platforms. To make a law which would avoid the re-classification of workers. He proposed a charter and he said if both sides – the platforms and workers – sign the charter they will not be allowed anymore to go to the courts to seek to re-qualify your contract. Fortunately, the constitutional court said ‘it’s illegal, you cannot do that’.

Three weeks later, I met the representatives of Deliveroo, the UK platform company, in France. He said that it was a shame that the constitutional court said this is illegal, because this is the solution, that Deliveroo realise they need to give a bit more social protection to the workers, but of course they don’t want what happened in California with the AB5 law. And then he told me that next week he was going to meet the Spanish Government and tell them they need to do the same thing that Macron tried to do.

Q: The Frouin report on regulating platform workers, which was commissioned by Macron and published in December, proposes a “third-party security” model between the platform and the worker. What do you think of this?

LC: After Macron’s charter failed, he asked Jean-Yves Frouin to write a report on the status of the platform worker. When we heard about this we all thought that this was Macron’s initiative, and therefore the report was going to be in favour of the platform and not of the worker. However, Frouin did his job seriously. He organised hearings from workers and all the experts.

It’s clear that Macron was expecting the conclusion of the report to be that ‘the third-status’ of worker [between self-employed and employee] is great, but Frouin essentially said ‘no, I cannot say the third-party status is the solution, because it would not be true. Everyone I talk to says it’s not the solution.’

Frouin’s report accepts that gig workers have the characteristic of the worker status, that there is a relationship of subordination, but the report states that the remit of the Macron government was that he could imagine all the possible solutions, but he could not recommend the employment status. And as the remit said he cannot go in that direction, Frouin had to find another solution.

So the report accepts the need for platform workers to be employed, to have the same rights as any employee has, but it does not ask the platform to assume the responsibility of an employer. Instead, it asks another entity to be the employer.

Concretely, this solution is not possible, because the money comes from the platforms, so who is going to pay the social security contributions? The worker himself? No, so it is a solution which avoids the main problem, which is to force the platform to assume the main responsibility of an employer. When I have met the representatives of Deliveroo and Uber the feeling I get is what they really don’t want is to employ people, because all their business model is based on that.

Three days ago, a food delivery platform, JustEat, announced they are going to employ 4,500 people in France. We are aware there is marketing involved from the company, but we are going to use it politically, to say to the platforms: ‘You have been telling us it’s impossible with your business model to employ people, but if JustEat is able to do it you are able to do it too’.

Q: The European Commission is beginning the process of preparing a Directive on regulating platform workers. You have drafted a proposal for what this Directive should look like on behalf of the Left Group in the European Parliament. Can you explain the outlines of this proposal?

LC: The European Parliament doesn’t have the right to initiate legislation – to right the first draft – so we need to wait for the European Commission (EC) to do a proposal. We were very afraid that what would happen is something similar to France, whereby a proposal comes forward more to protect the platforms than the workers.

We didn’t want to wait for the proposal from the EC, so with the help of unions and experts, I wrote a proposal for the Directive in order to show that without changing the European Treaty we can give to the platform workers the same rights as any worker in Europe – the same labour-law and social protection.

The best solution would be if the EC copied and pasted my proposal. It would mean after that platform workers would be organised as employees. To be clear, we are not against the self-employment status, but if you are self-employed you need to have the real freedom and autonomy of being self-employed [which is not what gig workers have].

The EC starts the consultation on the 24 February. We will have the final proposal from the Commission at the end of 2021. What we need now is mobilisation from the workers. My Directive is nothing if there is not workers behind it. When I talk to the commissioners, it is not the same if I say ‘look at the findings of this report’, as if I can say ’80 drivers and riders came from all over Europe to explain the situation, there is mobilisations across Europe, etc’. Mobilisation is very useful for the struggle inside the institution.

Q: What are your expectations of the European Commission’s Directive?

LC: I think we have to be at the same time optimistic but rational. The corporate lobby are very strong in Brussels. We saw in California the platforms were able to pay $200 million to cancel the AB5 law. We know that the platforms are able to get out big weapons in order to avoid assuming the responsibility of employers and carry on with their business model.

At the same time, you see the example of the Frouin Report, also all the judgements from the courts; this shows us that we are going in the right way. We have the social movements with us as well. So I am much more optimistic than I was one year ago. But it doesn’t mean that it’s done, and it’s also important to fight directly through unions, to involve co-operatives and new alternatives – we need to struggle at every level. Our enemy is big, but we are many.

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