Gig Economy Project – Organising gig workers in Belgium: Interview with Martin Willems of ‘United Freelancers’

Martin Willems tells the Gig Economy Project that the trade union movement needs to take organising the self-employed seriously.

Martin Willems, head of United Freelancers ACV-CSV union (Picture: @LeilaChaibi)


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.



Can self-employed workers help rejuvenate trade unionism in Europe? Martin Willems thinks so. 

Willems is responsible for the United Freelancers section of the ACV-CSC union, which represents 1.5 million workers in Belgium, and has been at the forefront of efforts to organise gig workers.

He made the case at two major gig economy conferences in Brussels at the end of October that unions must take seriously organising all workers, no matter whether they are employees, self-employed or bogus self-employed. 

The Gig Economy Project spoke to Willems about self-employed unions, the gig economy in Belgium and how to ensure bogus self-employed platform workers get labour rights. This podcast is organised as follows:

01:03: Self-employed unions

06:07: Gig work and employment status

16:52: The food delivery platform sector in Belgium

21:08: Belgian legal action and the EU Commission platform work directive

28:18: Uber dispute in Brussels

33:33: How to organise gig workers

 

The Gig Economy Project: There’s not many self-employed unions in Europe, I think it’s something quite unique, so can you tell us a bit about its origins: how did United Freelancers come about, how did it get started?

Martin Willems: I don’t think it’s unique in Europe. We got inspiration from what was done in Netherlands and in Germany, so it’s correct that we don’t see it in France, in Spain, in Italy, but I think in the Nordic countries they are more up for this idea.

So why did we begin this? It’s because we remarked that a lot of workers nowadays are working as self-employed. It can be genuine self-employed, bogus self-employed, either way there is a trend for more and more workers to work as self-employed. 

There was a tradition in Belgium and in most countries that if you are self-employed then unions are not for you, and we want to break this idea. We think that even if you are self-employed and even if you want to stay self-employed, that’s okay if it’s to have more liberty, but anyway you have to defend your working conditions, you have to negotiate. 

In most cases you are in an uneven bargaining position with a contractor or with another economic player, so we think the basics of unionisation – to defend your working condition by collective action – we think it’s also relevant for self-employed. 

GEP: Can you paint us a picture of the make-up of the union in terms of how many members, in what industry sectors you are organised in?

MW: A lot of our affiliates with the ACV-CSC union have mixed careers. That means that people are working as salaried workers but then maybe later they are working as self-employed, so the type of one career as salaried worker or one career as self-employed is no longer true, you have a lot of mixed careers. And also you have a lot of salaried workers with complementary activities as self-employed. In our union we have more than 1.5 million affiliates and we assess that 90,000 of them have a side activity as self-employed. We also have several thousand affiliates that are mainly or only self-employed. All those can call on the service of United Freelancers.

We organise in all sectors. We have workers in construction, teaching, a lot of different services, it could be a hairdresser, it could be delivery, it could be interpretators, also a lot in the artistic and cultural sector; artists, photographers, graphic design, all those kind of services and crafts. 

GEP: It was interesting listening to you addressing two conferences on platform work in Brussels, and stating that your union supports the idea that platform workers should as default be considered employees, a presumption of employment in the gig economy. Was that quite a difficult argument to win in your union, considering it is a union of freelancers?

MW: No, not really. Because we don’t say all platform workers should be employees. We say it depends on the actual working conditions, and we can imagine – and there are some platforms – that are acting purely as contact-making, or as a marketplace. So as self-employed we can work through those platforms. 

But it’s also a fact that most of the platform workers currently are working for a service platform, like Uber, like Deliveroo, and in those cases the reality of the working conditions is such that you should be an employee. It’s just an application of the law. If the platform is acting as a boss, is giving you clear instructions on how to make the work, if you cannot organise as a self-employed, if you cannot choose what to do first, then you should be an employee, and that’s the case for those platforms. It’s also what the judiciary thinks in Belgium. There are a lot of court actions at the moment. 

It’s also very important for genuine self-employed that you defend the meaning of what self-employed means. So if you have bogus self-employment, so-called self-employed who does not have any freedom to organise, then it’s not good for those workers but it’s not good also for the real self-employed because then you create a situation where a self-employed doesn’t enjoy freedom. A lot of our affiliates say: ‘I have to defend the fact that I am self-employed, I have to defend my freedom, I have to set limits’. So this example of bogus self-employment in platform workers are never good for those workers and never for the genuine self-employed [either]. 

GEP: You were very honest at the conferences when you said that most platform workers, not necessarily members of your union just platform workers in general in Uber and food delivery, that they don’t currently agree that they should be employees, but when they talk about the things that they actually want it’s a long list of rights which when you add them together is the rights you get from being an employee, it’s labour rights. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience of talking to platform workers and these contradictions?

MW: I spoke to the director of Deliveroo and also the director of Uber in Belgium, for me it was very clear that what they want is the advantage of the employer from both statuses. The advantage of working with self-employed people is that you don’t take the economic risk, for instance as a Deliveroo courier if there is nothing to deliver you don’t have any work and that platform doesn’t have to pay. So the economic risk is with the couriers. At the same time, they don’t want to apply the labour rights, because naturally it is a cost. I calculated that if a platform like Deliveroo had to work with salaried workers, it will cost them something like twice the current cost. 

It’s just a question of business model; they want to make more profit, but I cannot agree with this. There are limits; labour rights is rights for everybody working. So the platforms maybe agree to give some additional advantages to the workers provided they can continue with self-employed workers, but for me it’s going in the right direction but it’s not enough. If they are working as employees they should enjoy the rights of employees. 

GEP: From the perspective of your Uber driver or your Deliveroo rider, what is the psychology of this issue? Do they feel they have some extra freedoms that come from being self-employed but at the same time they want the rights that come with being a worker? 

MW: Well, most of the platform workers, unless they discuss a lot about it, they don’t demand to be employees. This doesn’t mean they demand to stay self-employed. Those are legal concepts, and maybe it’s too far away [from their experience]. 

Their demands are the very concrete ones: to be paid during waiting times; to have a minimum wage per hour worked, they can agree naturally to be paid more if they deliver more but to have a minimum hourly wage; to have serious insurance, not like the ones currently paid by Uber and Deliveroo, insurances at the same level as the employees; they also want to have somebody to talk to if they have any problem during their work, and currently it’s not possible, the platforms are currently unreachable for the workers. The platforms know how to reach you when they need you, but if you need them they just don’t answer, so that’s not correct. And if you list all those demands, all those expectations, you can find it’s all in the labour rights. So they should be considered as workers, then their demands will be solved.

Naturally the workers also enjoy that they connect when they want, but it’s not the case that should they become employees it won’t be possible to choose when you connect. In fact we have one platform in Belgium working with employees and you can also choose from week to week when you want to connect and to work. It’s the platforms like Deliveroo and Uber that are giving the impression to the workers that should they become employees there won’t be any freedom of choice about when they work, but that’s not true. An employee does not have to be 24/7 available for the boss, you can also discuss and establish when you want to work.

5) Can you give us a picture of what the food delivery sector looks like in Belgium, in terms of the platforms, pay and conditions of the workers? 

MW: For food delivery you have three platforms at the moment, Uber Eats, Deliveroo and TakeAway, TakeAway is the same platform as Just Eat. The two first platforms are working with self-employed or the special situation we have in Belgium called the regime of collaborative economy, so it’s a kind of self-employed if you are under €6,400 a year, so it’s not much. The last platform TakeAway is working with employees.

GEP: I know you have spoken about, in Brussels in particular, that quite a lot of riders are operating under a false name, using other people’s accounts, including potentially undocumented riders. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

MW: It’s particularly easy in Belgium with this specific work situation called the collaborative economy. In fact you have a special tax treatment that means they are taxed separately from other workers, so with this system it is very easy to enrich yourself from the platform by getting an account, and once you have the account details giving them to someone else who will work under your name. This practice is difficult to assess, but we think one in two couriers is working under another name. 

Now this doesn’t mean that they all are undocumented people, in fact there are many reasons to do this. One of the reasons is to enjoy the special tax status even if you go beyond the €6,400 [limit]. You begin the year working under your own name, and wants you reach €6,000 you go to another name, so you can add €6,000 several times. Another reason is for workers that is not 18 years old, or workers that also get unemployment benefit or social benefit, sometimes with this benefit you cannot accumulate with work revenues, so if you want to accumulate then you work under another name. So there are many reasons to do this. And also naturally if you are undocumented, you cannot work under your own name. 

6) The Belgian public prosecutor is currently taking a case to the Brussels Labour Court against Deliveroo, in a case that started Wednesday 27 October. A verdict is not expected for another few weeks as I understand it, but can you tell us about that case and it’s significance in terms of the future of platform work in Belgium?

MW: This case began in 2020, but due to the fact that the lawyers of each party have time to prepare and to exchange arguments the official session was only on 27 October. We expect the judgement on 8 December. It’s very important to realise that this action was initiated by the auditor, which is the public prosecutor, so it was not initiated by a worker or the unions. This means that there is relatively more chances to be regulated as salaried workers considering that the public prosecutors think so.

GEP: The Belgian Labour Court is not the highest court in Belgium, it’s not the Supreme Court, so I guess there’s the possibility of the decision being appealed?

MW: There will be an appeal afterwards so surely this will not be closed by the end of December this year. That’s why I also say the court decisions are important, but it won’t solve the problem. 

There is a problem today because of the very widespread bogus-self employment of platforms, and the only solution for this is a clear decision by the government. It’s not that our laws are outdated, certainly not – the principles are good but naturally they are prone to interpretation in the context of new emerging technologies, so the government has to make the current laws clearer for the new context. That will be the only solution because court decisions can always be by-passed by the platforms. 

Why? Because new platforms can appear, because each worker must go to the court one at a time to qualify as a salaried worker, so it is an endless process. And also if you get a decision from the court then the platform can also change a little something in the [algorithm], and then they can say “okay we just changed the way we are organising work so the court decision is no longer applicable”. So it’s endless. The solution must come from the government.

GEP: In that context, are you hopeful that the EU Commission’s platform work directive, which is due to be announced on 8 December, is going to deliver something which can be a solution?

MW: Yes, I’m hopeful. I know it will be not sufficient, but as a unionist I have to be optimistic and we will do anything we can to make it go in the right direction.

We proposed with ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation, the presumption of salaried worker. Will the commission take this? There are indications that they are considering it. Okay, they could also settle for something lower. 

For example they also spoke of just reversing the burden of proof if you want to re-qualify from self-employed to salaried worker. I hope that won’t be the final decision of the Commission, it is insufficient for me because it doesn’t change the general scheme that to re-qualify now you have to go one worker at a time to the court, even if there are more facility in the burden of the proof it is impossible to imagine that each one of the 10,000 platform workers will go to the court. 

So I really hope the Commission will propose the rebuttable presumption that the platform worker is employed. Rebuttable because we want that platforms working with genuine self-employed will still do it, but as the majority of platform workers now are working in the conditions of employees, the default solution should be employee.

GEP: In terms of private-hire drivers, the Brussels regional government established a smart-phone ban on Uber drivers in March, which led to protests from Uber drivers. There was talk of a new law involving taxi drivers and private hire. The local government says Uber is trying to dodge taxi regulations by classifying itself as a limousine service. What is your union’s view of this situation?

MW: Well it’s not correct to say the government of Brussels imposed a smart-phone ban, that’s not right. In fact Uber is working [through] the regulation for limousine drivers, and it is written in the law that a limousine driver has to drive for three hours for the same customer, so in those three hours it’s not supposed to take new rides using a telecommunication device. That this telecommunication device is a smart phone, or any other telecommunication device – it doesn’t matter.  Naturally they can use a smart-phone, but they should not in the current regulation operate for three hours with more than one customer. 

In fact Uber was abusing this regulation, because they said ‘we Uber, we are the limousine driver for three hours, but then we give instruction to the driver within those three hours to go to the first customer and then to the second and so on’. And furthermore they will not pay [the driver] for three hours because in the waiting times between customers they are not paid, so that is just an illustration that in fact the current regulation in Brussels doesn’t make a system like Uber possible. It’s not possible. 

That’s the current regulation, so the Brussels authority is working on new rules, that will make it possible under certain conditions for a platform like Uber to operate. And okay that’s fine for us, that’s okay, we think Uber and other transportation platforms are a good service, but naturally we want some limits. 

First, we want that the same rules apply to everybody, we want the same rules for the taxi drivers as for the platform drivers, because currently the regulations are different for limousine drivers as they are for taxi drivers. There are lots of differences like as a taxi driver you have to pay a very costly license, you have to undergo regular health checks, you have to pay an insurance that is very expensive compared to the insurance of a normal car. So currently there is unfair competition.

We want the same rules for everybody and we want a limit to the total number of taxi drivers, traditional taxi drivers and Uber drivers. Uber don’t want a limit. They say let’s make it possible for anybody to work as a driver when they want. You know the result of this; if tomorrow you have 10,000 drivers then the work, the number of rides, will be divided by the number of available drivers and will press the revenue of each driver to the bottom. 

GEP: More broadly, how do you think the trade union movement is responding to the challenge of organising platform workers, obviously they are a growing section of the European workforce. I know you’ve argued before that trade unions should have a more positive outlook towards the idea that workers want autonomy, because that’s possibly a position of a worker seeking more freedom. Are trade unions approaching this issue in the right way and how could they do it better?

MW: Unions should realise that the self-employed are workers too, and as a union we are working for all workers, not only salaried workers. 

It was the case for most unions that they wanted to put those workers in the box of a salaried worker, just because it was easier – we know what is applicable to salaried workers. As unions we have to recognise the demand of workers for more, and also if workers genuinely want to work as self-employed, why not if this is to have more autonomy? We just need to adapt our ways of working and to say ‘okay, even if you want to be self-employed, you have to defend your working conditions, and a union can be relevant to you’.

In fact it’s the case when I began to work with taxi drivers – self-employed traditional taxi drivers – at first they said ‘unions are not for us, unions are for salaried workers in industry’. And I said ‘why not? You have to defend your working condition, and let’s do this together. Together we are more effective.’ And we won several battles, for instance taxi drivers work for a taxi rank, and in in the end they say ‘I thought a union was not for us but now I realise it is effective and we should do it again’. 

It’s like beginning again what we did as unions in the 19th century. At that moment no worker was a salaried worker because there was no labour rights, so in fact every worker was like now, self-employed and without rights. But we began to organise them, to defend them, and then we got new rights. We have to do the same [now] for self-employed.

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