Ensuring fair working conditions in the online talent platform economy

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

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Online talent platform work has experienced rapid growth in recent years and been embraced by individuals and businesses alike. While working via an online platform does not constitute a new legal form of work as such, it does present a new way of organising and distributing work, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by advances in technology.

Online talent platform work is a typical example of how the world of work is becoming increasingly diverse. It can be carried out through many different contractual work arrangements – including fixed term, part-time, agency work, variable hours, self-employed etc, and covers all sectors and occupations – from professional services through to domestic cleaning. As a consequence, online platforms offer significant potential to bring people into the labour market and support higher employment levels. Private employment services are also deploying online platform technology to enhance their added-value to jobseekers, workers and businesses. From increased efficiencies to the promotion of new ways of working that can drive more dynamic, diverse and inclusive labour markets, we view online platform services as having the potential to bring a host of positive influences to labour markets.

As economies seek to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this presents a particularly attractive prospect. The crisis underlined the importance of developing new ways of working and in many respects has merely hastened the future of work.  However, if online platforms are to live up to their potential, then it is vital that regulatory frameworks are keeping pace. National governments in Europe have discussed the role of online talent platforms and the regulation covering them. The European Commission has announced it will propose a legislative initiative on improving working conditions for people working via online talent platforms this year and has launched an EU Social Partners consultation.

Action at EU level could be considered to address a range of issues, health and safety of platform workers and access to social protection through to algorithms management and access to training. Certainly, any initiative should duly consider the comprehensive body of EU legislation already applicable to online talent platforms including: the Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions, the Council Recommendation on access to social protection for workers and self-employed and – for platforms offering agency work services – the EU Directive on temporary agency work.

We need to support digital technology in stimulating social innovation. This means taking a human-centred approach to labour markets and creating new solutions for working, learning and social protection to ensure that fundamental rights and benefits are appropriately balanced across diverse forms of work. Platform work is a form of work and rightly comes with expectations of decent work.

On the 24 February, we organised a webconference debate on harnessing the potential of online talent platforms which gathered experts from the European Commission, Parliament and Business group. All agreed on their potential to broaden labour market access and contribute to economic growth, but opinions differed as to whether an EU Directive was the appropriate EU instrument to ensure a correct balance between respecting workers’ rights and ensuring fair competition. Some fear classification of workers will be difficult to solve at EU level as national systems differ too much. Others felt that a more harmonised approach to minimum standards applicable to platform work would provide greater legal certainty and enable platforms to grow and also to invest in their workers for the longer term. The way forward needs innovative solutions that protect all parties and there is a lot of good practice across Europe that can serve as inspiration.

In our capacity as EU sectoral social partner for temporary agency work, World Employment Confederation-Europe adopted a set of joint recommendations back in 2018, which continue to provide a valuable contribution to the EU debates on online talent platforms:

The first recommendation is that in regulating platform work there is no one-size-fits-all.  It encompasses a range of services, work statuses and ways of delivery. Any EU policy initiative needs to fully respect and value this diversity.

A second proposal is to encourage EU Member States to ensure a simple and clear framework for worker classification. People working via online platforms need legal certainty and clear rules fit for the 21st century. Workers and business communities need to collaborate at national level in shaping a common understanding of variables such as accountability, economic independence and supervision – including for the self-employed.

Next comes the need for enforcement of worker status classification regulation in creating a level-playing field. Resources should be allocated by public authorities at national level and be proportional and risk based.  Before considering regulatory overhaul, policymakers should assess to what extent effective enforcement would solve any worker classification issues.

Furthermore, policymakers need to ensure that similar services are governed by the same regulation, conditions and standards. Not all online platforms deliver the same output and many of them provide services that have existed for decades.

Finally, agency work must be promoted as a decent way to organise platform work. It is recognised at EU level by the Directive on temporary agency work and, like other forms of work, contributes to job creation, participation and integration in the labour market. Sectoral social partners of the temporary agency work sector have been at the forefront of social innovation by developing new solutions for working, learning and social protection.

Building on the recent webconference discussions on platform work, and replying to the European Commission social partners’ consultation on working conditions for online talent platform workers, the World Employment Confederation-Europe will continue to contribute constructively to the debate on platform work at European level.

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