Between flexibility and precariousness, all eyes are on Brussels’ move on platform workers

Milan,-,Italy,,,July22,2018,Uber,Eats,Is,An,International [DELBO ANDREA/Shutterstock]

The European Commission, which is due to present its proposal on platform workers on 8 December, faces a tricky balancing act: ensuring decent working conditions while maintaining the flexibility of a booming sector.

In Brussels and at the national level, initiatives are multiplying all over Europe to better regulate the gig economy.

Platform workers use an app, such as Uber, or a website, such as Amazon Turk, to connect with customers to whom they provide a service in exchange for money.

The food delivery sector alone reached €20 billion in Europe in 2020, with around 375,000 active couriers per week, according to a study published on 16 November by Copenhagen Economics and commissioned by Delivery Platforms Europe, which includes Bolt, Deliveroo, Delivery Hero, Uber and Wolt.

The study results warn lawmakers that up to 250,000 couriers could quit if legislation curtailed this flexibility, particularly concerning working hours and schedules.

For 72% of those surveyed, it is a complementary activity, and two-thirds said flexibility was a key reason they worked as a courier. On the other hand, almost seven out of ten did not want to switch to fixed hours, even if it meant a possible increase in income of at least 15%.

The study supports the argument of online platforms that regulation should not become too demanding or go against the core principles of the gig economy. Spain provides a meaningful example, as Deliveroo announced on Thursday (18 November) it will cease all operations because of the so-called ‘riders law’, affecting 4,000 workers.

By contrast, regulators and trade unions have been looking at the platform economy as a major loophole companies are using to avoid respecting social rights workers struggled for years to earn.

Flexibility vs social protection

“Flexibility, yes, but not at the expense of social protection,” MEP Sylvie Brunet (Renew) told EURACTIV.

While acknowledging this “form of work has allowed people to enter the labour market who, by the traditional route, had more difficulty”, she called for tackling the problem of “false independent workers”. This is where workers are subjected to the status and are treated like employees but do not have any of the rights that go with it.

In the European Parliament, Brunet carried a resolution last September urging the EU to provide a more transparent framework to regulate platform work and fight against the precariousness that can result from it.

To this end, European lawmakers called for improved social protection and working conditions for these workers, clarification of status, ensuring that the algorithms that govern assigned tasks are transparent, non-discriminatory, ethical, and more collective representation.

MEPs push to shape working conditions of the gig economy

The European Parliament adopted by an overwhelming majority a resolution on social protection for platform workers, anticipating key parts of an upcoming EU legislative proposal expected to come out before the end of the year.

Burden of proof

MEPs also proposed introducing a “rebuttable presumption” of the employment relationship, leading to a “reversal of the burden of proof” to empower workers in the balance of power they have with companies.

“This means that if there is a dispute, it will be up to the platform to prove that the worker is really independent,” Brunet said, adding that it is not a question of “coercing” companies but of “making them accountable”.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Uber says it “supports efforts to strengthen independent work – rather than eliminate it – with industry-wide minimum standards that protect all platform workers”.

On the other hand, the company favours “a more European approach, based on social dialogue” rather than “harmful legislation – such as the rebuttable presumption – proven to hurt the sector, small businesses and platform workers the most”, its spokesperson says.

The Commission’s proposal

Stakeholders are eagerly awaiting the Commission’s reconciliation of these issues as it is due to present the proposal on 8 December.

Ahead of this deadline, Brussels is currently conducting a second phase of consultation with the social partners with one objective: “to ensure that people working through platforms have decent working conditions while supporting the sustainable growth of digital labour platforms in the EU,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

While Brussels recognises “the variety of services performed via platforms, the wide range of business models and the diverse situation of people working through platforms”, the Commission wants to continue “to support the Member States in further protecting the genuinely self-employed” the Commission said.

“While the self-employed status may be a matter of free choice and preference for some, it may represent a lack of choice or pose problems for others, since people with this status may be subject to control and vulnerabilities similar to workers, albeit without the same degree of protection guaranteed to the latter”, the spokesperson added.

Uber grants UK drivers worker status in world first

Uber on Tuesday (16 March) said it is granting its UK drivers worker status, with benefits including a minimum wage – a world first for the US ride-hailing giant.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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