Beyond the Mirage: Classifying ‘work platforms’ is as important for decent work as classifying workers

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The time for talking is over. Following years of roundtables, research papers, and policy advice, legislators are stepping up to the plate to regulate platform work. 

Jochem de Boer is Public Affairs Manager at World Employment Confederation-Europe.

So far, it is the courts that have led the way. But it appears that policymakers are now ready to overtake them. In doing so, they must look beyond the classification of workers alone and also address the different services that are provided using platform technologies.

‘Platform Work’ has been a hot topic well before the Covid-19 pandemic. It brings together new technologies, ways of working and business-models and raised a growing number of questions on worker classification, work quality, and the future-proofness of existing labour market rules. The relevancy of these questions grows further as Covid-19 further disrupted the assumptions of the 1950s working methods that underpin 2020s labour law. As the economy recovers from the pandemic, new ways of working, enhanced by new (platform) technologies, will drive it. As such, the adequacy of the legal framework is crucial for the delivery of Sustainable Development Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Yet, while many legislators opted for a wait and see approach, it has been courts driving the legal framework for platform work. Over the course of the last decade a growing number of courts around the world have dealt with labour conflicts related to ‘the platform’ and ‘platform work’. So, what do the courts of the world tell us? Well, the extensive number of court cases provides good insights into where problems and conflicts actually lie on the ground. These insights will be crucial for guiding legislators when they eventually get around to shaping a regulatory framework that will apply to all.

First, most of them are around Worker Classification. In essence, the extent to which people working for or via work platforms are appropriately classified as employees or self-employed. This is key, as the classification acts as the most important gateway to protections and working conditions.

Secondly, they mostly involve work platforms that either deliver food or people (‘ride-hailing’). It is these location-based, business-to-consumer (B2C) platforms that lead to most labour conflicts. Finally, the vast majority of them address the (automated) impact and/or functioning of the platform software in directing, controlling and/or disconnecting the platform worker (a.k.a. ‘algorithmic management’). In sum, any regulatory framework will need to address to what extent these platforms move beyond ‘just matching supply and demand’ as they often claim, into the actual management of how the specific location-based service is to be performed.

We are now seeing legislators pick up speed. New social protections have been created for gig-workers in India, Spain has adopted a ‘Riders’ law’ setting regulations for ride-hailing and delivery platforms, while the EU has started consultations with social partners on a potential EU legislation on social dialogue and working conditions of platform workers. The ILO has also set a pathway to a normative approach: 2022 will see the first negotiations between governments and social partners to frame the topic and a potential ILO standard setting response.

So, to conclude, as increasing numbers of legislators and social partners gain speed and overtake the courts in regulating platform work, what should they take away from the unique on-the-ground insights that the court rulings provide? First, worker classification regulation needs to be crystal clear to ensure that workers have access to protections and that bogus self-employment can be exposed.

As these many court cases show, the classification goes beyond ‘the platform worker’ alone. The labour conflicts brought to courts clearly show that a granular approach is needed on the different types of work platforms across the economy. The term ‘work platforms’ cannot be applied indiscriminately as the ‘platform’ is just a technology. As this technology is deployed in different ways in different services, it will impact labour markets and work quality differently. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better.

In this context, online talent platforms arrive at the scene. Indeed, they deploy new technologies to significantly improve the matching experience and provide better and more labour market matches. Yet, the backend is organized by quality private employment services with a background and track record of decent work social dialogue and compliance with the law.

So let us not be fooled by the technological mirage that some of these platforms conjure for us. Yes, new technologies are significantly improving the workers’ labour market journey. But work remains work and comes with the expectation of quality. For this, we need to look beyond the technology and to classify and properly regulate the services in the same way that we need to identify and classify the work relationship.

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