Gig Economy Project – “We managed to reverse the balance of power”: Interview with Leïla Chaibi MEP

Piero Valmassoi, EU policy expert and activist at the Maison des Livreurs (House of Couriers) in Brussels, speaks to Leïla Chaibi MEP after the vote of the European Parliament on the Platform Work Directive [2 February]. They discuss the lobbying efforts of the big platforms, the substance of the European Parliament’s mandate, and what happens now.

Picture by The Left

The vote of approval by the European Parliament for the Employment and Social Affairs committee (EMPL) position on the EU Platform Work Directive represents an important milestone in efforts to protect platform workers’ rights. The text will be the Parliament’s basis for the ‘trilogue’ negotiations with the Council of the EU and the European Commission

One of the most active MEPs in the defense of the rights of platform workers is Leïla Chaibi, who is a member of La France Insoumise and the spokesperson for The Left in the European Parliament on platform work. After the vote, Chaibi visited the Maison des Livreurs (‘House of Couriers’) to bring the good news to delivery couriers and ride-hailing drivers. 

The Maison des Livreurs in Brussels is a space opened in November 2022 and organised by a coalition of grassroots collectives and trade unions representing platforms workers (Collectif des Coursiers Bruxelles, CSC, United Freelancers, Jeunes FGTB), where delivery couriers and drivers can spend time between shifts, dry their clothes, and socialise with a cup of coffee. Platform workers also receive support and advice on their issuesregarding salary and employment status. The ultimate objective of this projectis to achieve better working conditions for platform workers, by creating a social basis that can engage and express its demands in the political discourse. 

I spoke to Chaibi at Maison des Livreurs about the Parliament’s vote, and what next for the Platform Work Directive.

Piero Valmassoi: What are the main improvements of the Parliament’s text compared to the initial proposal of the European Commission?

Leila Chaibi: Today’s vote represents real progress, a result that was difficult to imagine three years ago when we started to work on the subject. The Commission’s text was ambitious, but still had aspects to be improved. 

The Commission’s proposal put forward a presumption of employment based on the fulfilment of certain criteria. The working relationship had to meet two out of five criteria, in order for the worker to be considered as an employee: for example, when the worker cannot establish price rates and cannot manage his own clients’ portfolio. The problem was identifying who would have established whether these criteria were satisfied or not. Additionally, it would have been the worker’s responsibility to prove that he or she was meeting the criteria. As a result, this type of presumption would have been very difficult to apply. 

READ MORE: Defeat for the platform lobby: European Parliament backs stronger Platform Work Directive

The Parliament decided that the presumption of employment is not linked to any criteria and must be applied by default. Instead, criteria will guide the potential challenge of the platform to this presumption. We have been hearing platforms claiming that every worker will be reclassified as an employee and this will be a disaster for their business model. This is simply not true: workers are either genuinely employed or genuine self-employed, and platforms that do not apply any link of subordination, but are just intermediaries, can trigger Article 5 of the Directive and bring the proof that workers are genuinely self-employed. 

So, the main difference is the removal of subordination criteria and the reversal of the burden of proof, which is now on the platform. A more precise definition of the mechanism to activate the presumption of employment will prevent the responsibility falling on the worker to prove employment relationship. 

PV: This vote also represents a defeat for platforms, which have lobbied aggressively against the Commission’s proposal and even more against the Parliament’s report. Can you give us some examples of the lobbying strategy adopted by platforms? 

LC: Platforms have been really active in lobbying all along the process. At the Parliament, we are used to the power of lobbies, and it often happens that they are the ones who end up writing the law. They thought this would have been the case here too, but it wasn’t. 

They knocked on the doors of all MEPs, even behind the back of the rapporteurs. The EPP rapporteur Dennis Radtke was not considered friendly enough to platforms’ demands, so they looked for right-wing MEPs who could repeat their arguments as parrots. We had yet another example right before today’s vote: Miriam Lexmann (EPP) is one of the most caricatured examples of how platforms channel their voice in the Parliament. Every time she intervenes in the Parliament, she reads texts written by platforms and their lobbies. 

There were events organised at the European Parliamentin Strasbourg by right-wing MEPs where the Directive was discussed: platform workers were not invited, while platforms and MEPs in line with themspelledout their demands. When we invited platform workers to join these events, they were treated as “ignorant activists” by MEP Skyttedal (EPP). 

A new tactic consists ofhaving lobbyists not introducingthemselves as directly representing Uber or other platforms. Instead, industry groups such as EU Tech Alliance and MOVE EU have emerged as facades behind which platforms could join forces and hide their identity. 

Another tool used by platforms is paying for “academic” studies: my colleague Karima Delli, Chair of the Transportand Tourism Committee, mentioneda study on mobility that referenced Uber 110 times. These are studies that seem independent, but are actually commissioned by platforms to back their arguments. 

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is used to directly circulating documents around EU Commissioners and we could see an impressive number of meetings between platforms and MEPs and EU Commissioners. These things are often not illegal, but they prove that platforms know the institutions very well: for example, the Head of EU Affairs atUber was formerly an assistant to an MEP. 

We have managed to counter this system, by engaging workers – who usually do not have access to the EU institutions – in the legislative process. By giving them the possibility of expressing their voice in the hemicycle, we managed to reverse the balance of power. 

PV: The Council did not yet reach an agreement and the Swedish Presidency is not in favour of a strong Directive. How do you see the next steps going forward?

LC: The Parliament approved its position, now it’s the turn of the Council, and we already know that their text is going to be less ambitious than the Parliament’s report, and even of the Commission’s proposal. 

An agreement by the Council was supposed to be reached in December under the Czech Presidency, but the action of certain Member States such as Spain prevented a deal that would have been very  negative to workers. This text was designed so that the presumption of employment would be just an empty shell.

While lobbies will continue focusing their action on the Council, its position must be approved under the Swedish Presidency, in order to be able to adopt the final Directive by the end of the mandate (spring 2024). An agreement should be reached in March: we don’t expect it to be great, but our strategy is to stall negotiations until the Spanish Presidency takes office in July. 

Spain is a precious ally on this subject: in Europe, on one side of the spectrum we have Macron, very closeto Uber and co., and on the other side there is Yolanda Diaz, Spain’s Labour Minister who is very sensitive to workers’ issues. However, the final agreement must be ratified by all Member States and there is a block of states that are really against the Directive, such as Sweden, the Baltic countries, and France, which is often taken by Khosrowshahi as the model to follow. 

PV: A more general question: it is very difficult for the general public, activists, and journalists, to have access to the legislative work of the Council of the EU. How can we reach better transparency on the EU legislative process and especially on the action of the Council?

LC: This is a vital issue. The more transparency we have, the more the decisions taken will be in the interest of citizens and workers. It’s easier to pass laws that are against citizens’ interests if everything is decided behind closed doors. This is a major challenge and we have a lot to do about transparency and clarity. I often have the impression that the process is designed to be carried out in opacity, so that citizens are not encouraged to engage. 

We are trying to make the legislative process as transparent as possible and to explain all its complicated aspects, for example by requesting the Council to publish the minutes of their meetings: without clarity, there can be no ownership of the process by the citizens. Our work as MEPs has to bring the mobilisation of the citizens into the institutions, and vice versa, to make our work visible and understandable for the citizens. 

PV: With the UberFiles and during the negotiations on this Directive, we have acknowledged the disproportionate access of big companies and their industry groups to policymakers, compared to that of workers. How can we fix this imbalance and reduce the influence of big companies on EU policy?

LC: When a citizen or a worker wants to enter the institution, they must be invited, registered, and receive a badge. Instead, we see lobbyists with their brown badge entering the Parliament when they want and meeting who they want. 

There is a mechanism that allows MEPs to declare their meetings with lobbyists, but it’s not mandatory, so most of them don’t useit. While we don’t need to ban meetings with lobbyists,we definitely need clear and binding rules: when an MEP votes for something, people need to know who he met before voting. We need a reform of the Parliament’s internal rules, but what we need the most is to make the whole process more democratic, by opening the doors of the EU institutions to the mobilisations of citizens and workers. This will contribute to keeping corporate lobbyists far from decision-makers. 

Once again, platforms and lobbyists thought that they could make themselves at home in the Parliament: this vote proves how it’s possible to prevent lobbies from writing the laws, as often happens.

Note: On Thursday evening [2 February], after the visit of Leila Chaibi and this interview, the Maison des Livreurs of Bruxelles received a terrible piece of news. A delivery courier had a serious road accident in Bruxelles and his death was confirmed on Friday. Piero Valmassoi, as an activist of the Maison des Livreurs, wants to express his deepest condolences to the family. 

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