Just as advances in technology enable us to connect in a different way, creating opportunities for anyone with a mobile phone to find work and earn money, European regulators are determined we should not lose our basic rights.
In February, the European Commission began its consultation on the rights of gig economy workers whose labor is governed by digital platforms. The intention is to establish “the need and direction of possible EU action to improve the working conditions in platform work.” Among the key issues to be addressed, in addition to employment status, will be the use of algorithms, collective representation and access to social protections. Legislation will be introduced if no agreement is reached but it is difficult to see how a consensus can be achieved when Jobs Commissioner Nicolas Schmit admits, “There is not white and black or there is not just one-size-fits-all. There is a big variety in the world of platforms.”
On the launch of the consultation, Uber issued a statement, without a hint of irony: “We welcome the steps taken by the European Commission to improve the conditions of platform work,” said a spokesperson. “Any legislative initiative should be grounded in what platform workers value most — flexibility and control over their work, transparent and fair earnings, access to benefits and protections, and meaningful representation.” Just a week earlier, the UK Supreme Court had determined that Uber’s drivers were not self-employed as the company had asserted but were entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other basic rights.
The Uber judgment highlighted the fact that although the connection between the employer and the worker is facilitated by technology, the fundamental relationship of “master and servant” endures as it has for generations with one party ultimately being in a position of “subordination and dependency.”
There remains a strong conviction among unions and left-wing politicians in Europe and the US that job security is important and that new forms of work offer an opportunity for exploitation of workers. “All platform workers must be considered as employees,” was the view of Dutch MEP Agnes Jongerius, a European parliament spokesperson for the employment and social affairs committee. Last year, the Dutch government endorsed the recommendations of a Work Regulation Committee (also known as the Borstlap Committee) which said that temporary and flexible contracts should be made less attractive, although legislation has not been forthcoming.
Spain is the first country in the EU to legislate on gig workers engaged as delivery drivers. The law will technically give workers employee status and corresponding rights but will also give unions the right to access algorithms used by the employers to manage their workforces. Under the new law, food delivery companies have three months to employ their couriers as employees. It has a very specific remit and follows a Spanish Supreme Court ruling that workers for delivery app Glovo were employees, allowing them to gain formal contracts and benefits.
The conundrum for regulators is to find a way to ensure that the competing interests of technical innovators, workers and the customers they serve are all satisfied without undue harm and with enough flexibility to adapt to a future we can’t predict.