Gig Economy Project – Dead end: Platform Work Directive blocked by Germany, France, Estonia and Greece

EU member-states fail to pass platform work regulation, in what was billed as the last opportunity to do so before the end of the parliamentary term.

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THE Platform Work Directive appears to be dead, after it was blocked for a second time by EU member-states.

At a meeting of the Council of the EU on Friday [16 February], the body which represents member-states, Germany, France, Estonia and Greece formed a ‘blocking minority’ of states. France indicated that they would vote against while the other three states said they would abstain. 

Under EU rules, the Council can only approve of legislation if states representing 65% of a population share of the EU vote in favour. With Germany and France making up 33.8% of the EU population alone, the abstentions of Estonia and Greece ensured that the other 23 member-states could not get their way. 

A provisional agreement had been struck last week between the Belgian Presidency of the Council and the European Parliament. Belgium had re-negotiated the text after a previous provisional agreement under the Spanish Presidency in December, which was also rejected by member-states.

Announcing the failure of the new vote, the Belgian Presidency stated: “We believe that this Directive, aiming to be an important step forward for this workforce, has come a long way. We’ll now consider the next steps.”

The Council vote had been billed as the final opportunity to agree on the Platform Work Directive before the end of the European parliamentary term, with elections set for early June. It is highly unlikely that there will be time to re-negotiate a new agreement with the European Parliament before the recess.

When the new parliamentary term begins following the elections, it will be under a new European Commission with new MEPs in the Parliament, and no guarantee that platform work regulation will even make it back on to the agenda.

Commenting on the failure of the Council to agree to the Directive, Ludovic Voet, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said: “799 days after, representatives of the governments vetoed the agreement found on the Platform Work Directive. We were one country close. The 23 countries who voted in favour should not delay but take action to end [the] scandal of bogus self-employment.”

Leïla Chaibi, France Insoumise MEP and campaigner for platform workers’ rights, lamented the French Government’s opposition to the Directive, led by President Emmanuel Macron.

“Macron buries the platform workers’ directive,” she tweeted. “The vote against in the Council marks the death under this mandate of social progress for millions of workers.

“Shame on Macron. May he never again dare to present himself as the defender of [a] Europe which protects!”

Kim Van Sparrentak, MEP for the Dutch Greens and deputy rapporteur on the Platform Work Directive, tweeted: “Macron and the German liberals apparently consider the profits of large platform companies such as Uber and Deliveroo more important than better working conditions for the most precarious workers. Unfortunately, the tens of millions of euros in lobbying money have paid for themselves.”

Nicola Schmit, European Commissioner for jobs & social rights, who was responsible for this file, said: “It is deeply disappointing that the EU Member States were not able to vote through the platform work directive today.

“The Commission still firmly believes in the need to improve gig workers’ terms and conditions, and create a level playing field across the Union.”

German abstention

The French, Greek and Estonian opposition to the Directive may not be too surprising considering that they are led by right-wing and liberal governments, but the German Government’s abstention is more politically contentious. 

Germany has a coalition government made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The labour ministry, responsible for the Platform Work Directive file, is led by SPD minister Hubert Heil. The SPD and Greens’ European parliamentary groups have both been enthusiastic supporters of the Directive.

READ MORE: Permanently on the fence: Germany criticised for abstaining on EU platform work regulation for 2 years

However, Germany has abstained in every vote on the Council, a process which began under the French Presidency in January 2022. Asked by the Gig Economy Project in January why Berlin had refused to take a position for more than two years, a spokesperson said that talks were “ongoing”. 

A report in ‘Handelsblatt’ on Wednesday stated that taking a position on the Platform Work Directive was “blocked by the FDP”, and was one of 14 EU issues where there is “currently disagreement or lack of clarity” on in Berlin. 

The FDP is the smallest party in the coalition government and is currently polling for the next federal elections at under 5%, the threshold needed to be able to win seats in the Bundestag.

A Directive long in the making

In 2019, new European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen had promised to deliver a Directive to improve working conditions in the platform economy and harmonise labour standards across the EU as part of her ‘economy that works for people’ agenda. The Directive was aimed at addressing the thorny question of employment status and the risks which were attached to the algorithmic management of gig work. 

The European Commission published a draft proposal in December 2021, proposing five criteria for triggering a presumption of employment in the platform economy, as well as a suite of new rights relating to algorithmic management. But as the legislation progressed, it became increasingly clear that dividing lines over the question of employment status were sharply posed.

The European Parliament (EP) backed a strong presumption of employment without criteria, in an attempt to avoid loopholes that could be exploited by platforms seeking to avoid the increased costs which comes with employing their workers. On the otherhand, the Council’s proposal was much softer than even the Commission’s, proposing a weak criteria and various opt-outs for member-states.

Negotiations between the Council and the EP proved difficult, but ultimately differences within the Council were the decisive factor in the failure of the Directive. That’s despite the Belgian Presidency completely re-writing the employment status part of the text in January in an attempt to bring France on board. The new text left the key criteria for triggering a presumption of employment up to each country, only establishing a general framework to decide on employment status. 

The stripped-down Belgian text, which was only reluctantly agreed to by the EP side, also included a reversal of the burden of proof, so that platforms would have to go to court if they wanted to challenge the view of the labour inspectorate that their workers are employees. 

The text also contained a series of rights in relation to algorithmic management, including the right for workers to know what information is held on them and to human oversight over key decisions like app de-activations.

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