The platform corporations have just won a battle in California over classifying their workers as ‘contractors’. An EU directive is required to take the opposite tack.
A major fight has been brewing over the rights of gig-economy workers. In an effort to keep costs low, and profits high, companies such as Uber and Deliveroo want their workers to remain precarious, in a state akin to self-employment or freelancing. These workers deserve better and their rights concerns us all—that’s why a European Union directive is needed.
The notion of flexible work, independence and autonomy promised by the gig economy has failed to materialise. The typical gig worker does anything but ‘gigs’ for digital platforms. Millions of Europeans depend on this work for their livelihoods. Many, despite working excessive hours under poor working conditions, still struggle to earn decent wages and have no social safety-net. Digital platforms have been let off the hook not only on taxation—as they deprive public coffers of billions of euro, vital for public services—but also, crucially, on granting workers their due entitlements.
Until the gig economy became a phenomenon, Europe had managed to escape the worst of the ‘flexibility’ which characterises the United States labour market, where employers retain almost all of the power and workers can be fired at will. Now, these companies threaten to weaken hard-fought gains won by trade unions through decades of struggle. Stripped of rights such as annual leave, sick leave and accident insurance, because of a lack of recognition, gig-economy workers face persistent exploitation by platforms.
These workers are however increasingly organised and unionised, having collectively mounted a series of legal challenges to their precarious status. There have been victories in Paris, Madrid and Rome, while court proceedings continue elsewhere.
With rules differing widely among European countries, there is a major opportunity for the EU to step in and protect gig-economy workers with the basic rights afforded to other workers, as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. I have persistently raised this with the employment commissioner, Nicolas Schmit, demanding legislation that protects gig-economy workers, granting them rights such as sick leave and full recognition as contracted employees, rather than as self-employed or freelance.
A year has passed since the commissioner has taken office. Despite the clear signs from European courts, the demands from workers and now a pandemic which has put gig workers on the frontline, no such legislative proposal is however in train.
So, following a process of engagement with gig-economy workers, trade unions and experts in labour law, on behalf of the Left group in the European Parliament this week I am presenting the text of an EU directive on Digital Platform Workers. Regrettably, the European Parliament does not have the right of initiative and so I am submitting the text to the commission in the expectation that Commissioner Schmit can use it to come up with the much-needed legislation.
The 11-article draft directive would guarantee labour and social rights for digital-platform workers. It would enable predictability in terms of maximum periods of work, minimum rest periods, remuneration, overtime pay, and health and safety. The directive would entail shared EU competence with member states, respecting the principle of proportionality and not preventing member states from instituting stronger protections if they so wished.
In my conversations with workers and trade unions, a major concern has been the role of algorithms in the control of labour, which leads to exploitation and affects well-being. Therefore the directive would entitle workers to transparency about the functioning and use of algorithms and the ‘right to disconnect’. Workers should also have a say, through collective bargaining, over data-processing that seeks to ‘rate’ them.
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In California, digital platforms spent a staggering $200 million to campaign in favour of proposition 22, a referendum to allow them to continue to classify drivers for Uber as independent contractors, not employees. They sadly won that battle. In Europe, we must not allow these corporations to undermine our democracy or dilute our hard-won rights.
A directive to protect rights in the ‘gig economy’ would send a message about EU values. Over to you, Commissioner Schmit: the future of millions of workers is in your hands.