The Covid-19 crisis not only rendered visible the great importance of the platform economy for the supply of everyday goods. It also revealed the disadvantages of this hyper-flexible form of intermediation and employment, often combined with a precarious working situation. However, given the urgency of a just and fair regulation of platform workers’ working conditions, it has now become abundantly clear – the time is ripe for a Directive on platform work.
In recent years, work provided by and on platforms has undergone huge changes; apart from offering a vast range of services, its quantity and availability has increased manifold. For a long time, the development of gig economy business models has been perceived as the paragon of digital innovation. In the meantime, organising many aspects of everyday life via platforms has become a reality. According to the predominant opinion, the work behind the scenes can be organised flexibly and both location and volume can be adapted to platform workers’ needs. However, those, whose work is platform-based, provide their services under legally ambiguous and socially uncertain conditions: for example, cleaning and organising databases, providing translation services or creative services, allocating cleaning jobs or delivering parcels, basic foods or freshly prepared meals or taxi services.
In particular, the platform economy exhausts the grey areas between dependent employment and self-employment. In doing so, a growing number of employees find themselves outside the scope of employment laws. For years, trade unions have been voicing serious concerns regarding the bypassing of social security, tax laws and above all the Labour and Employment Law. Platforms make the undifferentiated assumption that people “charged/hired” by them are self-employed. Hence, no minimum wage rules and collective and wage agreements apply; pay is low and using algorithm-based (rating) systems means that the potential for discrimination is immense.
However, awareness of problems associated with platform work has recently been growing within EU institutions. The recitals to the new Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions at least include a reference to point out that platform workers, fulfilling relevant criteria, have to be regarded as employees. Changing this position is definitely on the political agenda too; the matter is also included in the Political Guidelines for the European Commission 2019–2024 by its President von der Leyen: “Digital transformation brings fast change that affects our labour markets. I will look at ways of improving the labour conditions of platform workers, notably by focusing on skills and education.”
With its schedule “Improving working conditions of platform workers” , the EU Commission promises to submit a legislative proposal in 2021. It currently points towards the idea that exemptions from the EU competition law might be created for the group of self-employed platform workers, giving them the opportunity to collectively bargain their working conditions. However, this would be a solution only befitting the interest of actual self-employed workers, who are in a position to act independently. One thing is certain: another, general solution has to be found for the growing group of economically dependent people in need of protection, who are employed in the platform sector. This can either be done by redefining the term employee, taking also into account economic elements or by expanding those standards, which have to be applied to people, whose status is similar to those of employees. A detailed analysis of the status quo and the regulation potentials is included in a Study, which has been prepared on behalf of AK Vienna, ÖGB, ETUI und ETUC. Apart from that, the widely known platform- specific problems justify a separate platform work regulation at EU level. Concrete proposals as to what such a Directive on improving the working conditions of platform workers might include, can be found in this current AK EUROPA Policy Brief.