Towards a fair and sustainable digital platform labour

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As a result of the digital transition, platform work is spreading rapidly, shaping a new form of employment and affecting millions of workers. The EESC, in the hearing on the “Working conditions of platform workers package”, highlighted the potential risks and how these challenges should be met by the Directive proposed by the European Commission. The package was welcomed by the participants, who raised the need for a common legal framework, given the diversified reactions and practices applied by the Member States when it comes to platform labour.

Platform economy, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is at the top of the European agenda. It is estimated that 28 million people work through digital labour platforms in the EU today, while this number is expected to increase up to 43 million by 2025.

The hearing organised by the EESC aimed at gathering input from other EU Institutions, civil society, academia and social partners, which will feed into the opinion on the Working conditions package (SOC/709).

Ms. Cinzia Del Rio, EESC rapporteur of the study group, mentioned that this new form of employment provides important job opportunities but also steps out the traditional way in which labour is organised. She also pointed out the wide variety of provisions and approaches among Member States. Even basic standards vary considerably from country to country. On that, Ms. Del Rio said: We welcome the Commission’s decision  to put forward a Directive. This  could define a common regulatory framework based on a number of fundamental criteria and principles that can be transposed at national level.

Karolien Lenaerts, research manager at the KU Leuven, HIVA - Research Institute for Work and Society, and keynote speaker of the event, highlighted the diversity of the profiles of people working in the platform economy. Platform economy is a new way of employment providing true opportunities but only those with a strong professional profile people often reap the benefits.

Low-skilled platform workers are more exposed to many risks and usually face precariousness, job uncertainty, no access to social protection, low wages and limited flexibility. According to the European Commission, people working through platforms do an average of 9 hours per week unpaid tasks and 55% earn less than the minimum wage. In this respect, the Commission’s Directive is an important step forward ensuring that everybody can profit from the benefits of the platform work.

Refining the platform features: employment status and the algorithm "black box"

As the employment status is the gateway to labour rights and social protection, the classification of workers has been raised as a core issue, and in many cases disputes resulted in national courts to define the employment status.

Max Uebe, from the Commission’s DG Employment, confirmed in numbers that more than 120 court decisions on employment status have been issued in 12 Member States, with more cases pending. He added that the employment status is a priority challenge in the proposed Directive.

However, Alessio Bertolini, from the Fairwork Project, argued that the proposal does not fully address this issue because platforms have been able to amend their contracts, to avoid their workers being reclassified as employees leaving it to workers and their representatives to play a cat and mouse game for their rights.

The participants brought up the "hot" topic of algorithms, as more and more work management is entrusted to them. With the new proposal, digital labour platforms will be required to open up their algorithms, the so called “black box” of automated decision-making.

Algorithmic accountability is the key as it will enhance transparency, traceability and awareness of developments in platform work and improve enforcement of the applicable rules for all people working through platforms, including those operating across borders.

To this end, Mr. Ricardo Rodriguez Contreras, research manager at Eurofound, supported the well-balanced and thorough structure of the proposal, but expressed concern over the platforms' evolving business models, which could soon render some criteria of classification obsolete.  

Lukas Pilgram from the “Delivery Hero” and Robert Torvelainen from “Wolt” were supportive of the initial aim of the proposal, but they both underlined the advantage of flexibility offered by platform work. In particular, they stressed that flexibility is highly valued by platform workers and added that more focus should be given on improving working conditions, rather than on reclassifying the platform workers as employees, depriving them of the flexibility they enjoy.

Along the same lines, Isaline Ossieur from Business Europe supported the aim of the proposal to improve working conditions, and highly stressed that flexibility is preferred by the majority of platform workers. She expressed her worries that the way the employment status was addressed in the proposal would harm the flexibility and the freedom of choice offered by the platform economy.

Finally, Ludovic Voet, from the European Trade Union Confederation welcomed the timing of the proposal by saying: it is a good signal that the proposal comes now and sets the end of free ride for the digital platforms. They should respect labour law if they subordinate workers, the core of the proposed regulation.


Towards a fair and sustainable digital platform labour