The European Commission on Wednesday began its consultation on the rights of gig economy workers whose labour is governed by digital platforms.
The commission’s process is made up of two parts: the first, which will last six weeks, will see businesses, workers and unions consulted on “the need and direction of possible EU action to improve the working conditions in platform work”; the second, to take place later in the spring, will see concrete proposals formulated and legislation introduced if no agreement is reached in the first stage.
Among the key issues to be addressed, in addition to employment status, will be algorithmic management, collective representation and access to social protections with the EU officials aware that, according to jobs commissioner Nicolas Schmit, “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.”
First soundings suggest the commission wants to preserve platorm-based gig economy work. Margrethe Vestager, competition commissioner and chair of the Europe Fit for the Digital Age group, said: “The platform economy is here to stay– new technologies, new sources of knowledge, new forms of work will shape the world in the years ahead.”
However: “And for all of our work on the digital economy, these new opportunities must not come with different rights. Online just as offline, all people should be protected and allowed to work safely and with dignity.”
She identified the most crucial issue was “to find a balance between making the most of the opportunities of the platform economy and ensuring that the social rights of people working in it are the same as in the traditional economy” adding there was “also a matter of a fair competition and level playing field between platforms and traditional companies that have higher labour costs because they are subject to traditional labour laws.”
She said she was not looking at creating a new category of worker: “In my experience, discussions become extremely complex when you want to create a new category. We’re not in any process to create a third category. But we think that here in the consultation, it’s important that we get the feedback on exactly this.”
Uber said it welcomed the consultation: “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.”
Last week’s judgment in the UK Supreme Court, which ruled Uber drivers were workers because, said the judge, the relationship between it and its drivers was one of “subordination and dependency”, could lead to changes in the UK that will inform the commission’s discussion.
However, centre and left-wing political groupings in Europe are campaigning on the basis that platform workers should be employees. Alongside trade unions such as the European Transport Workers’ Federation – a participant in the consultation – they believe the onus should be on the platforms to prove that their “contractors” aren’t employees, rather than the other way round.
“To change the game of the gig economy, in principle all platform workers must be considered as employees,” said Dutch MEP Agnes Jongerius, a European parliament spokesperson for the employment and social affairs committee. Another member of the committee, French MEP Sylvie Brunet, published a draft report on the rights of platform workers this week, which called on the EU to draw up legislation to “counter bogus self-employment”.
Groups representing companies’ interests such as BusinessEurope do not wish to see an EU-wide definition of employee, which they say should be defined on a national level. Unless an agreement is reached at stage one of the European Commission’s consultation, it is likely that digital platform workers on the Continent will be subject to a patchwork of national case law for at least a year to come, because it is thought coming up with legislation will be a long drawn-out process.