Brussels-based Anne Dufresne, co-author of new book “App Workers United – The Struggle for Rights in the Gig Economy”, tells the Gig Economy Project that the EU Commission’s track record of ‘deconstructing the social rights of member-states’, means we should expect the worst when it comes to their platform work directive in December
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust
The European Commission’s directive on platform work is less than six weeks away. One way or another, it is likely to be a game-changer in Europe’s gig economy. If it introduces changes which force platform companies across the continent to hire workers as employees like any other, with full labour rights, it could be a fatal blow to the attempts by Uber, Glovo and the rest to continue to hire workers without taking any responsibility for their welfare.
On the other hand, if the EU Commission were to introduce a law which was useful to the platforms’ in rejecting the various Supreme Court verdicts which have went against them on employment status, and cemented a “third-category” between employee and self-employed across the continent, it could be a major, permanent set-back for the progress the labour movement has made over the past year, in countries like Spain and Portugal where legislation for employment status of at least some platform workers has been introduced or will be introduced.
All this and more is occupying the minds of platform workers and activists travelling to Brussels from across Europe and beyond this week for the Alternatives to Uberisation Forum, on 27 October. One of those attending the forum is Anne Dufresne, a sociologist and researcher of atypical and international social mobilisation at the research group for alternative economic strategy in Brussels. Dufrense was the organiser of the first European assembly of couriers in 2018, and is involved in Allianza Unidos World Action, an international network for gig workers. She is also co-author of the ‘The struggle for rights in the gig economy’, with Cédric Leterme, published by the Left in the European Parliament in January 2021.
Before the forum, Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator, caught up with Dufresne in Brussels to talk about the EU Commission’s directive, her book and much more.
The Gig Economy Project: You have been researching the platform economy for a number of years now. What are the main changes in platform capitalism that you have seen in that time?
Anne Dufresne: I think platformisation is more and more important in the economy as a whole. It’s difficult to speak about the platform economy in general, because you have big differences between the GAFAM [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft] and what is happening at Uber and Deliveroo. The main thing to say is that platformisation is developing more and more and there is no regulation of it. Even for the problem of exchange of data between the countries.
Now, the WTO is pursuing e-commerce agreements, and want deregulation [of data]. So I think at the macro level of platformisation that is a big problem. Because if we don’t have the possibility of regulating data, the algorithm will be totally controlled by the employers, and then it will not be possible to defend social rights, because the management [of the platforms] will control all the data in the platform economy.
GEP: In your book you talk about the importance of the battle over employment status, which you say “largely determines everything else”. We had Prop-22 in the US, which rolled back employment status for gig workers which had been won with the AB-5 law, but in Europe we have seen many legal victories over the past year, and in Spain the introduction of the Rider’s Law which is intended to give all food delivery couriers employment rights. Where do you see that battle now?
AD: We really can speak about a battle, or a war, for employment status, and that is very different in the two continents; America and Europe.
You mentioned about AB-5 in California: what is incredible is that now Uber is writing the law; that’s what they did with Prop-22. That means that even when the government has the possibility to impose the employment status, Uber is stronger. That is a very bad signal for the EU Commission’s Directive [on platform workers]. Because Uber, since there big political victory with Prop-22 last November, wants to transfer this to the whole world. And you have big lobbying in the EU Commission for this European directive, and the power of Uber to lobby the Commission is much more important than the lobby of the left, so it’s a big difficulty to avoid this Uber law in Europe.
So I think a very important slogan is ‘no Uber law in Europe’. This means no independent contractor-plus, this new labour status which was invented by Uber. Maybe we could have an alternative status here in Europe, or a presumption of employment status. So it’s a battle for employment status that is now beginning, in terms of this Directive.
GEP: The legislative proposal from the EU Commission will be published in December, the European Parliament has what it expects from the Commission, including a presumption of employment status for all platform workers. What is your expectations of the European Commission’s legislation?
AD: In the political guidelines of the European Commission, they want to look at improving the conditions of European platform workers. But what does this mean exactly? Until now, when the EU Commission intervened, it has always deconstructed the social rights of member-states and not improved labour conditions.
So that’s why we have to be very careful about this process with this coming European Directive. It seems the aim of this process is to rapidly produce a text; it’s very quick.
The idea is a minimum social floor for platform workers – but the question is, is this really to improve the conditions of platform workers, or to regress the labour conditions of all the workers? A new minimum social floor could attract all the employee contracts of all sectors towards it. So that’s why all workers – not only platform workers, not only couriers – are concerned with the future of this Directive for platform workers.
GEP: In your book you talk about the need to “seriously reinvent trade union practices and demands” for the platform economy. We’ve seen a strike in Barcelona recently at the food delivery platform Glovo being led by one of the traditional unions, CCOO, on the other hand in the UK the GMB, one of the big traditional unions, has signed a recognition agreement with Uber that has been heavily criticised by the more grassroots unions, like IWGB and ADCU, for basically being a sweetheart agreement. Are the traditional unions adapting to the challenge of the platform economy?
AD: It’s very difficult to speak about unions in the general. Because you have the base and you have the top of the unions. All the examples you mentioned are examples of good practises for developing a new type of unionism, but the link between a collective of platform workers and unions is very difficult sometimes in some countries. Also, it depends on the culture of the unionism in each country.
I’ve got a good example of the articulation between the base of workers and the unions. Last March in Italy, the CGIL (Italian Confederation of Labour) made an appeal, and intervened to make a big strike with the platform collectives in 31 cities. It was a big success. That was interesting because they really had the possibility to create the link between the local collectives – Italian collectives are very active – and the national appeal of a strike for platform workers in general. The strike was a success and a very important moment for understanding what the role of the unions could be in this battle.
GEP: In the section on platform co-operativism in your book, you talk about a “constant ambiguity” within the platform co-operative movement, divided between those who want to settle for a niche role within the wider platform economy, and those who want to use platform co-operatives as a tool for social and economic transformation. Can you explain that ambiguity – that tension – within platform co-operativism?
AD: I think platform co-operativism is very important as a political vision, but until now not in practise. I see two parallel movements more or less; in lots of countries you have a big gap between exploited workers working 70 hours a week and struggling for better work, which is where the struggle from the collectives come from. And then you have the struggle of platform co-operativism, that is thinking about a new vision of employment, a new vision of an economic model, and so on. Both are very interesting, but they are not linked. It could be very interesting when the struggle can use the political vision of platform co-operativism.
GEP: In terms of strategy for the movement you say in the book that it’s been a “major oversight” not to connect gig struggles to broader developments in digital economy, and “form alliances” on that basis. What broader developments are you talking about specifically and what sort of alliances do you think could be formed with other workers?
AD: I think first of all between platform workers, for example between drivers and couriers. It’s not so easy and this is the first link.
And then you have alliances with all other platform workers, who are really not involved in the struggles up to this point, but it’s so important to make this work visible, because they are ghost workers. Sometimes the couriers say ‘yes, we are not struggling just for us, but for everyone’.
And then there needs to be a broader front with precarious workers. A good example of that is the convergence between the struggle of the McDonalds workers and the couriers in 2016. It was very, very interesting.
Then federating all these workers at the transnational level, this is the way to a new internationalism.
GEP: The Alternatives to Uberisation Forum on Wednesday 27 October brings together gig workers from across the world, and there’s a big emphasis in your book on on the importance of a new internationalism of the platform workers’ movement, and obviously you have been involved in this directly. Has the international movement progressed?
AD: I think the federation between workers around the world is very difficult, because of the involvement at local level. They already have difficulties in continuing to create local struggles with local collectives, and this is their main objective – to struggle at the city level.
Then you have the link between local level and national level, I have mentioned the example of Italy. But when they create this link, sometimes they become institutionalised, including with unions which do not have the same objective.
So therefore I think we can ask the question: is it possible to make a link directly between the local struggle and the international struggle, without the national level? It’s complicated. The idea is to avoid a level of institutionalisation, and create this ‘glocal’ collective actor at international level which can face directly the platform.
I think this is now more or less what they have tried to do with networks of precarious workers at urban level, in the Allianza Unidos World Action at international level. But the members of this international network are evidently more involved in the local struggles than in the international struggle.
What we have to mention is that there has already been four international strikes organised since the pandemic that have been really impressive, and the next one is on 5 November – the fifth international strike – launched by the Allianza Unidos World Action, with the slogan ‘we are all workers’. I think it’s very important to see that this international strike has the demand for employment status. It creates the link between this collective active strategy and theoretical strategy, and now I think it’s crucial with this upcoming European Directive.
GEP: Do you think the struggles that take place in Latin America, United States and Europe are unified in the sense that they are striking over the same issues, or do you see quite big differences in the reasons why they strike?
AD: I think because the platforms are big multi-nationals, the struggle can only be international. It is self-evident I think, but it is very difficult to build a common identity in the face of multi-national platforms. The movement now is creating that, but it’s a very long battle.
I think there is progress because in the European Assembly [in 2018] there was the idea to choose between the two status’; employment or self-employment. The workers were not very clear about it. Now, more and more there is the idea that it is important to get this employment status, that it is the necessary first step.
That’s in Europe, but in Latin America because of the pandemic because of all the people who have died, the demand for employment status is much more crucial, they know they really need this social protection and they are totally clear to get the employment status. In the Latin American and North American contingents they are really really active on this. And that’s why I think it’s important that the American delegation comes to Europe to explain this argument to the European collective.
GEP: Gig workers are facing multiple different issues. In the UK recently the union IWGB has taken Uber to court for what it calls its “racist” facial recognition software that it uses. What demands should gig workers be making about data and algorithmic management?
AD: It’s important to come back to the demands of Allianza Unidos World Action, because they have demands for defending social rights, but they also now have demands for the creation of digital rights, and that’s a very big issue. The idea is that the app must be intelligible, controllable, transparent and subject to collective bargaining agreements. They also demand the protection of personal data. It is difficult to apply these demands, but the idea is that all users must have the right to access and control their data, along with its use and the profit it generates. Because that’s a big resource for profits, this data.
I think it’s a big big issue and the movement in general, and Allianza Unidos World Action in particular, is very aware of this. I think there’s also a big debate in the unions more generally: how to create digital rights? I think this has to be the first question now for the unions to address when it comes to platform workers.
GEP: Finally Anne, I want to ask you about the Left’s vision for the platform economy. You say in the book that the left needs “to redefine the very contours of the digital economy”, including to “ask questions about its very legitimacy”. What do you mean by this and does the left have a vision for the future of the platform economy?
AD: It is very difficult to have a vision of the left! But as I mentioned before, there are different currents, including the de-digitisation school, which I think is very interesting. Because we try to struggle against Uberisation, to control platforms, to regulate platform work, but it’s like we forget that it’s possible also to control the platformisation itself. I think it’s the first step and I think that this radical current of de-digitisation is very interesting to take into account.
Then you have the social-democratic left thinking that we can get this employment status for platform workers and that is enough. But as I mentioned at the beginning, I think it’s more difficult because there has been a new category of worker, an interim worker, which contributes to the deconstruction of social rights. For me this new category of platform workers is a new way to initiate a wave of regression towards the deconstruction of employment.
That’s why maybe we have to think about a more revolutionary approach. It means not to stop with the idea of employment status; that may be the first step, but to think how to get the possibility to emancipate this employment status. To try to go to another redefinition of work.
There is a big current, for example with Bernard Friot, who talks about “salaire socialisé” [“salary for life”] in France, and a lot of other thinkers now who are trying to redefine work. I think this is more important than to defend worker status, which is really important in the short-term, but more generally for all workers we have to think ‘what are the employers doing now?’ They want to make us think that the work doesn’t exist anymore, we are all cycling for pleasure, what we do is really leisure, and we are autonomous, but it is a big trap; the autonomy and the liberty is not real. To the contrary, we are more and more controlled through this false-autonomy.
So I think what is needed now is to deconstruct the discourse of the employers about liberty and to recover a real liberty in the activity. Then we can say ‘it’s work or not work’; we can redefine work.
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