Gig Economy Project – Half of EU platform workers have hourly earnings below the minimum wage, survey finds

Survey finds that there are 12 million platform workers in the EU, 3 million of which do platform work as their main source of income

Picture by Yuya Tamai

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This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.

One of the most in-depth surveys to be produced so far about the size and shape of platform work in the EU has found that the hourly rate of pay for half of all platform workers does not meet the statutory minimum wage.

The largest number of platform workers earning below the minimum wage were those doing ‘remote clickwork’ (55%), for example for Amazon Mechanical Turk, where workers carry out micro-tasks on their computer like identifying images. Forty-eight per cent of those doing transport work, such as for Uber, earn below the minimum wage, while the figure is 46% for those at a fixed location, for instance in a person’s home as a carer, and 42% for food delivery, such as for Deliveroo. This includes time spent at work which is not remunerated. 

The survey, produced by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), was conducted in spring 2021 in 14 EU countries, covering 84% of the EU’s working age population. 1750 workers participated per country via telephone and on a randomised basis. Most previous surveys on platform work have been online-based, which contains an element of self-selection and thus may not be so accurate. 

The in-depth survey is required because government statistics agencies are not yet collecting robust data on platform workers. The vast majority of the data on platform workers is held by platforms, which rarely allow independent or government access to it for data-gathering purposes. 

The survey found that 17% of EU workers (47.5 million) are internet-workers, while 4.3% (12 million) work specifically on digital labour platforms, with 1.1% of workers (3 million) using digital labour platforms as their main source of income. Agnieszka Piasna, a researcher at ETUI, said these figures show that “platforms do not, yet, dominate the online labour market”. 

Remote clickwork is the most common form of platform work in the EU, with more than 1% of EU workers performing this form of work at least every month. A similar number of platform workers can be found in most European countries, with Ireland standing out as the country with the highest number of platform workers who’s main income comes from this type of work (2% of the total workforce).

While young people are more likely to do this work, the platform workforce is more age diverse than it is usually considered to be. More than half of all platform workers are aged 35 and above, while more than 10% of platform workers for whom it is their main job are aged 55-65. Wouter Zwysen, an ETUI researcher, said it’s clear that platform workers “do not represent a distinct social group”.

In terms of gender, over 60% of platform workers at fixed locations are women. The majority of this type of work is thought to be home care. Remote clickwork is split 50/50 between men and women, while more than 80% of transport workers, mostly ridehail drivers, are male. Sara Baiocco, from the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said that the figures showed that “gender divides are replicated in the platform economy even when there are no discriminatory hiring practices”.

Migrant workers are also disproportionately represented in the platform economy, with more than 10% of platform workers in the EU coming from outside the EU, whereas just 5% of EU residents are from non-EU countries. Platform workers also tend to be more educated than the population as a whole, while students are twice as likely to be on the online platform economy than on-location.

Generally, people with standardised employment contracts are much less likely to enter the platform economy, with those using the platform economy to top-up their income generally being workers who are already in precarious employment of some form. 

The findings were presented at an event hosted by ETUI on Thursday [17 February] which was in-person, in Brussels, and also online. Organisers said 700 people had registered for the event.

EU Platform Work Directive

The survey findings come as the EU Commission’s Platform Work Directive proposals, published in December, are set to be debated and possibly amended by the EU Council, which is made up of the heads of the EU’s member-states, as well as the European Parliament. The Commission has proposed a presumption of employment status for platform workers, based on meeting at least two of a set of five criteria. 

The final sessions of the ETUI event heard a discussion about the Directive proposal, with Leïla Chaibi MEP, who has led The Left group in the European Parliament’s work on platform economy regulation, stating that the draft proposal on 9 December was “a beautiful victory” but that it is “far from done and dusted”.

“We know platforms are not going to cave in and will do anything it takes to by-pass these obligations,” she said.

Chaibi added that she would be working with colleagues in the European Parliament to “build the widest possible coalition” for just one fo the five criteria to be required, rather than two.

“We don’t believe more than one criteria is necessary,” she explained.

She warned that with French President Emmanuel Macron as the current president of the EU Council (the presidency rotates every six months), the risk of the Directive being amended in the platforms’ favour is greater, but that Macron’s position was “not all-powerful”.

Ludovic Voet, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, also addressed the event, and said that European Commission’s proposal was “a political signal” that “the platforms subordinate the workers and will have to employ them.”

Nonetheless, he said there was potential dangers in the formulation of the Directive which could potentially provide an escape route for platforms who don’t want to employ their workers. One of these is that if the platform simply has to explain that it does not meet the five criteria in its terms and conditions, rather than in a court of law, then “nobody is able to understand which platform operates which way”. 

Voet argued that platforms must have to take a case to court themselves to prove that the workers using their platforms are not employees, and only then should the five criteria become relevant.

On Tuesday [15 February] the Belgian government agreed a deal to amend laws on regulating platform work which Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo claimed was “fully in line” with the Commission’s Directive. The full details of the deal have yet to be released.

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