30th Mar 2023

Improving conditions for gig workers splits MEPs

  • EU Commission estimates suggest that between 1.7 and 4.1 million workers are currently misclassified as 'self-employed' (Photo: The Left)
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Self-employed or employed? This question is at the heart of the negotiations of the proposal for an EU directive on improving the conditions of platform workers.

Home-delivery riders, or Uber-style app drivers are some of those who compose a sector estimated by the EU Commission to employ more than 28 million people. The number has been growing for years, and is expected to keep rising, reaching 43 million workers in the next two years.

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The sector boomed to a record nearly €14bn in profits in 2020, but European legislation is still a step behind: the labour rights of these workers are not covered by the existing regulations.

Under pressure to improve their conditions, the commission presented a proposal for a directive at the end of 2021.

In December, the council failed to reach an agreement on its position, so it remains divided between those who advocate a pro-worker directive, and those who do not. And the European Parliament, the third axis in this relationship, was supposed to vote this Thursday (19 January) whether the report of the employment committee voted upon last month will be the institution's position in the trilogue negotiation.

However, MEPs are divided, and the text could be rejected in a plenary vote that has now been postponed for two weeks (until 2 February), after 71 MEPs who disagreed with the committee report wanted more time to insert amendments before the trilogues started.

That is unusual considering it was voted for by a large majority in the committee itself, MEP Alicia Homs pointed out on Wednesday.

The S&D MEP pointed out this has only happened with seven of 82 plenary mandates during this legislature, and added: "One cannot help but wonder what is behind the deliberate delay of some negotiations on a directive that aims to ban bogus self-employment on platforms."

For the general secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Ludovic Voet, it is a simpler matter. "Do MEPs want working people to have fair and decent employment, or do they want fake self-employment to become even more widespread?," he said on Tuesday .

The classification crux

At the heart of the changes this proposal, binding for all member states, would entail, is the reclassification of the workers of these platforms. EU Commission estimates suggest that, currently, between 1.7 and 4.1 million workers are misclassified as self-employed, although ETUC believes there could be a higher number.

"Workers who are forced to accept tasks or cannot set their own price are not actually self-employed", the European Confederation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CECOP) told EUobserver. CECOP includes cooperatives compliant with the regulations, which they complain is unfair competition.

Given the reluctance of those who oppose the inclusion of the 'presumption of employment' in the report (ie, which implies that platform workers will be platform employees unless the platform can prove otherwise), reclassifying them does not imply taking away the "flexibility" of these workers, CECOP explained.

"Misclassification of workers happens when platforms force them to work as self-employed and to obey strict guidelines determined by the platform", CECOP representatives pointed out, stressing both the parliament text and the commission's initial proposal.

BusinessEurope, the employers' organisation, however, is opposed to this modification, which they label as an "irresponsible solution" leaving it to individual platform workers to trigger the presumption, without giving time they deemed adequate for a response.

The employers' representatives declined to comment to EUobserver beyond its official statement sent to the EU institutions.

"Platform work is, ultimately, work", said a joint letter in October from trade unions, cooperative enterprises, and non-governmental organisations to the European institutions in the hope of an effective directive.

Several months later, they continue to argue that achieving the correct legal status for each worker is essential for them to have access to minimum working conditions, such as enjoying social protection, accident cover, or the right to vacation days without penalising the worker's rating.

The directive seeks not only to recognise the correct legal status of these workers, but also to protect them from algorithmic control and the use of subcontractors to continue poor working conditions.

"We strongly support the requirements of transparency of information concerning the use of automated monitoring and decision-making systems," SOLIDAR & SOLIDAR Foundation, a network of over 50 European civil society organisations, told this media. Thus, they are calling on the EU and its national governments to better develop skills and knowledge to understand how these algorithms and software work, in order to build "a more democratically organised platform economy".

"This is a first crucial step towards protecting all workers against the abuse of algorithms. Automated decision-making systems cannot be black boxes," said Elisabetta Gualmini, the leading MEP, in December.

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