How does the private hire platform market operate in Spain? And what role are trade unions playing in seeking to represent drivers? Víctor Riesgo Gómez, a sociologist and predoctoral contract researcher at Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), summarises the findings of his recent research paper on this topic for the Gig Economy Project.
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THIS text presents part of the results of my recently published research paper ‘Worker resistance strategies and union action in platform work: the case of Uber in Spain’.
In Spain, unlike in many countries, platforms such as Uber have been forced by legislation to offer their services via a standard employment relationship. However, the workers do not maintain the employment relationship with the platforms such as Uber, Cabify or, more recently, Bolt, the three platforms operating in the Spanish market. Instead, they are employed by intermediary companies.
When Uber launched its services in Spain in 2014, it arrived camouflaged under ‘the collaborative model’, i.e. offering its application so that individuals without specific training or any technical requirements could offer rides to customers. Complaints filed by taxi drivers’ associations in commercial courts in Madrid and Barcelona led to this type of offer being banned in both cities.
This led Uber to adopt a type of strategy that Jimena Valdez calls “contentious compliance”. The company initially withdrew from the market only to return a few months later. Uber restricted the supply of vehicles available on its app to those that had Driver Transport Vehicle (VTC) licences, a type of authorisation with which Cabify, at least since 2014, had already been offering.
This type of licence had certain limitations before the arrival of the platforms, both in terms of the type of services they provided, as well as the amount that could be authorised by the regional administration. However, taking advantage of a series of legal loopholes, some Spanish investors, possibly financially supported by the platforms themselves, initiated a legal process to expand the number of licences available and the type of services authorised. As a result, the number of VTC licences grew, to the detriment of taxi drivers, who on several occasions expressed their dissatisfaction with these decisions.
This situation also led to the emergence of a secondary market for VTC licences, where their price multiplied to very high figures, thus favouring a process of concentration of ownership of VTC licences. Between 50-70% of the licences that could operate in the most attractive regions – such as Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Seville and Valencia – remained in the hands of three large business groups. One of those groups were directly linked to Uber, another to Cabify and a third group that collaborated with Cabify, but later broke its agreement with the Spanish platform, offering its licences to both Uber and Bolt, which entered the Spanish market in the summer of 2021.
The concentration of VTC licences in the hands of large business groups meant, almost automatically, that the drivers of the vehicles authorised to provide these services would work under a standard employment contract model. As salaried workers, they formally enjoyed the benefits provided by labour legislation in this regard: employment contract, 40-hour working week, holidays, sickness insurance, unemployment and retirement rights, as well as rights to union participation and representation, union elections and collective bargaining.
However, when contacting workers in the sector to carry out my research from the end of 2019 through to 2021, whether in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Seville, it was clear in all the interviews that many of the legal obligations were systematically breached. There was a huge gap between the legal agreements contained in the contracts and the actual working conditions of workers in the sector.
Throughout the interviews, two different ways of organising the working day of these workers emerged. On the one hand, some of them shared a vehicle assigned by the company owning the VTC licence. This vehicle was circulating between six and seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day for each worker. The working hours could range from 6am to 6pm in one shift. At that time, the driver was replaced by his vehicle colleague who completed the remaining hours, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following day.
Another way of organising work, available to some drivers with greater commitment to the companies, or with better performance levels, consisted of the worker being assigned a vehicle, which was at his or her total disposal, on the condition that he or she spent more than 60 hours a week driving and connected to the application. These shifts had to fall within the hours of greatest demand; weekends and specific hours on weekdays.
In order to obtain the commitment of the workers and to incentivise them to work long hours, the contractors offered very low guaranteed wages, but combined this with high incentives calculated on the basis of the turnover obtained during their working day. The tasks of supply management and service allocation were entirely under the algorithmic control of the platforms and were carried out through their applications. In addition, these workers were often under direct pressure from middle management hired by the companies that owned the licences and vehicles. Therefore, added to the pressure coming from the platforms and customer ratings, a third point of pressure on platform drivers in Spain came from the intermediary companies.
Market conditions and trade unions
On this basis, the Spanish platform transport market grew exponentially from 2014 onwards. The main increase in the number of licences granted by the administration, as a result of court rulings, occurred between 2018 and 2019, with the total number of vehicles available in some regions such as Madrid increasing almost fourfold. This led to increased competition among drivers, making it more difficult for them to reach the minimum turnover thresholds that allowed for extra economic benefits. In addition, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the platforms reduced their fares in an attempt to increase their customer base, with many employees becoming dissatisfied with the situation.
This increase in the number of licences also meant that many companies were obliged to comply with the legal mandate to form works councils through union elections. In Spain there are two large trade unions, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), which concentrate the majority of trade union representatives in almost all sectors, as well as participating in collective bargaining and national consultation processes on different aspects such as minimum wages, retirement, unemployment or changes in labour legislation. This allows them to have a relatively strong and well-resourced infrastructure compared to other unions, despite the fact that union membership in Spain is traditionally among the lowest in Europe. These two unions often align their strategies in defence of workers’ rights, with frequent talk of “unity of trade union action”. However, in this sector they were forced to compete with a third union specialising in the transport sector, the Sindicato Libre del Transporte (SLT).
The controversies arising from the emergence of the platforms initially generated processes of resistance driven by taxi drivers, giving rise to what was called “the taxi war”. This led to a realignment of political and trade union positions for and against uberisation. Parties on the left positioned themselves in favour of taxi drivers, while other liberal parties blessed the arrival of the platforms.
In a context of polarisation, in September 2018, the employers’ associations called a large demonstration in defence of the sector to oppose the legislative measures imposed by Parliament to limit its scope of action. Two trade unions, UGT and SLT, also took part in this large demonstration, together with the employers’ associations. In this way, the idea was reinforced among the workers that the only strategy to guarantee the permanence of the sector was to remain united in the face of external enemies and to postpone the resolution of internal conflicts.
From this point, SLT took the lead in the first phase of union implantation. From the union leadership, the lists of candidates for union elections were agreed with the companies. One of the former SLT leaders told me in an interview:
“They started to handpick the workers, all those who were trusted by the managers of the companies were elected as workers’ representatives. Overnight we [SLT] went from having two representatives in Madrid to having five from one company, six from…the company where I was. More than 21 that they took out…”
This situation coincided with an attitude on the part of the SLT that some of its own representatives and affiliates considered too conciliatory with companies that often forced the law to oblige workers to work longer hours than agreed, or made payroll deductions for various unjustified reasons.
A second phase that we can distinguish, even with the processes of trade union implantation in the sector still underway, is the action of groups of workers who turn to the majority trade unions, especially the CCOO, for support and advice. This allowed trade union leaders to learn the complexities of the relationship between platform worker, the platform and the intermediary companies. This was expressed by one of the main leaders of CCOO in the road sector in the Community of Madrid in an interview with me:
“When we started or got to know this, our heads exploded. “You work for Uber” “No, I work for a company called Ares” “And Ares for Uber, and who pays you is Uber and the car belongs to Ares, no, I mean, is Uber your supplier… client or whatever? The relationship is there, the VTC workers are false workers because they are actually self-employed, who do I work for? For the one who pays me, but that depends on who provides the services and they rate you through an application and if I have a low score they can block me and if they block me I’m out of a job… but I don’t work for them, so… madness”.
As this extract from the interview shows, the role played by a handful of workers was fundamental in facilitating understanding of the work model imposed by Uber in Spain, as well as opening the door to trade unions which are less conciliatory with the company’s strategies.
The third phase, once a certain degree of stabilisation of the business had been achieved, is characterised by the collective bargaining process that was to culminate in the approval of the first collective agreement for the Madrid region for drivers of VTC vehicles connected to technological platforms. This process began at the end of 2019, but was interrupted due to the arrival of COVID-19 and the restrictions resulting from this situation.
The main point of conflict in this negotiation was located in what should be considered effective working time. While the employers’ organisations considered that only the time the driver was carrying a passenger in the vehicle should be considered as such, the trade unions, especially UGT and CCOO, tried to include all the time the worker was driving around the city, even if he was not receiving any service.
This is one of the problematic aspects of algorithmic workforce management and the obscurantism that characterises the algorithms. Algorithm’s, like for instance Uber’s, transfer to the worker a market simulacrum in which the asymmetry of the information on which they exercise their power to direct and control the workforce becomes evident. It is the platforms that have the final say in the allocation of rides, as well as the quality of the rides allocated. It could be the case that a “nuisance” driver, according to the platform’s criteria, receives little or no service, or very poor quality service, damaging their level of performance, their income or extending their working day to no end.
Seeking to partly resolve this issue outside the bargaining table, small groups of workers, advised by labour lawyers, filed complaints with the aim of obtaining full recognition of working time in the courts. These workers carried the initiative forward by also pulling in their own class unions, which in many cases did not participate directly in the lawsuits. Obtaining favourable rulings in many cases served to lay the foundations which, although they were not fully included in the approved agreement, did allow many workers, mainly in larger companies with a strong trade union presence, to switch to a 40-hour working week without fear of being fired or penalised for it.
The first conclusion that can be drawn is that the Spanish model has an advantage for platform workers in passenger transport by providing them with a floor of rights comparable to those in labour legislation. This includes the right to union representation among them.
However, this model has not been able to fully address the excesses of algorithmic workforce management. For example, there is a need to increase the transparency of the algorithms involved in controlling the labour process. Otherwise, it is possible to hide mechanisms of discrimination embedded in the algorithmic design itself, in addition to generating a feeling of vulnerability among workers that can influence their daily practice and be a conducive element for repressing possible expressions of discontent.
Finally, the role of the workers themselves in facilitating the understanding of the phenomenon by the class unions was fundamental. Without this type of worker-driven action, it is possible that the emergence of trade unions in the sector would have been co-opted from above, becoming a transmission belt for the interests of the bosses.
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