Europe Is Recognizing Platform Employees as Real Workers
On Monday, the EU Parliament backed a directive granting employees of platforms like Uber labor and social security standards just like other workers. It’s time to stop tech firms using bogus self-employment to deny their employees’ rights.
- Interview by
- Francesco Massimo and Nicola Quondamatteo
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is well-known as an “Uber-liberal” — a connection highlighted by the recent Uber Files revelations, which called attention to his collaboration with lobbyists for the ride-hailing firm during his spell as economy minister. In recent years, this platform, like similar ones, has been a Trojan horse for attacks on employment standards and a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, widely known as Uberization.
Yet not everyone in French politics has bowed to these new masters. Leila Chaibi is a France Insoumise representative in the European Parliament, where she is part of The Left group. She has taken up platform workers’ demands within the EU’s institutions, including through her work on a European directive that would recognize these workers as employees — and force states to ensure minimum labor and social security standards. According to European Commission estimates, up to 5.5 million platform workers around the continent are currently misclassified as self-employed, out of 28 million in total.
Moves toward such legislation saw several important steps in recent days. First, at an EU Council session, the right-wing Czech presidency — on the side of the platforms — proposed an amended text, watering down the one that had gone through the Commission. But seven states rebuffed this move. Then, on December 12, the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee struck a more pro-worker deal. The text will provide the basis for a negotiating mandate with the EU Council and European Commission.
Chaibi spoke to Jacobin Italia’s Francesco Massimo and Nicola Quondamatteo about the regulation of platform work, the weight of lobbyists on EU decision-making, and the need for action to boost workers’ conditions faced with inflation.
The struggle to pass the European Directive on platform work is still ongoing. How did it come about, and where is it currently? How do you expect it to play out?
Last year, on December 9, 2021, the European Commission published a proposal about a directive on platform workers. The main debate revolves around whether platform workers should be assumed to be self-employed or else subordinate, i.e., employed. In the proposal, there is an assumption of an employment relationship, which means that platforms have the responsibilities that go with being employers.
When the European Commission made the proposal a year ago, it did not fall from the sky. Rather, it was the result of two years of struggle both inside and outside the European institutions. Early in 2019 — the year I was elected — the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, said that we (Parliament) and they (the Commission) would work on the issue of platform employment. When she said this, it was not good news for workers, since platforms thought they had an opportunity for a kind of legalization of what labor judges across Europe had been ruling was illegal.
We had platforms entering the market saying they were mere intermediaries between self-employed workers and their clients. But workers would go to the courts and say, “Okay, look, I’m an Uber driver and I’m supposed to be self-employed. I bought the car because I thought I was the boss of my individual company. But in the end I don’t choose the price of the ride or the way I work. I am not self-employed, I don’t have the freedom of the self-employed.” And most of the time, when workers raised the issue of not being self-employed, the judges reclassified it from a commercial, business relationship between worker and platform to an employment relationship.
But the platforms thought they wouldn’t have to worry about this, partly because they felt — as we used to think, too — that European policies would be made in the interests of lobbies and corporations rather than in favor of workers. The EU is far from workers, from citizens. The lobbyists feel at home in European institutions. So, the platforms thought that we would make legal what the judges were finding was illegal. They thought we were going to legalize a kind of third status in-between self-employment and salaried employment. This was going to be a gift to employers because it means that you can have a worker who is actually and substantially subordinated but in many respects framed as a self-employed person. This means that the company, in this case the platform, does not have to pay for social protection, does not have to comply with labor law, etc. The problem for the worker is he still has an employer telling him what he has to do. He has none of the good parts of either employment (the rights enshrined in labor law) or self-employment (the freedom, the autonomy).
But there were also progressive forces in the European Parliament and workers who began to organize themselves. They did this even though it was more difficult to organize within digital platforms than in traditional companies where there is a proper labor contract. They started organizing all over Europe, saying that theirs should be considered a real job in its own right and that this legislative process should not lead to the legalization of a third status and should not depend on the platforms. The workers were saying that it is the employer’s responsibility to respect labor law and pay for social protection.
The European Parliament doesn’t have the right to take legislative initiatives. We MEPs cannot write the first draft bill — we have to wait for the Commission’s proposal, and so we had to push. I made a proposal for a directive even though formally I had no right to do so. So, it was an unofficial proposal, but it was a kind of tool in the debate, to say that it was possible to consider the problem on the basis of Article 153 of the EU treaty [the one that refers to the need to protect workers and combat social exclusion]. We managed to build a coalition in the European Parliament around a report saying that the Commission should propose a directive that would presume an employment relationship.
We managed to build a broad coalition for this. Why? Because even the traditional right — while loving things like the market and competition — could not accept that some companies had to comply with the law and others [the platforms] did not. Being in favor of fair competition, it could not accept the way platforms do things. So, we as a Parliament managed to get a very ambitious proposal from the European Commission. We managed to bring the workers themselves to the institutions in Brussels, to make the Commission — used to always listening to the lobbies, to the platforms — listen to them. If you have someone in front of you all day, of course you will be influenced.
Where are we now? The lobbies did not expect us to win the battle. They thought everything would be easy for them, because we were talking about unorganized workers, without unions, without a traditional way of organizing. But they lost and now they’ve woken up. We see it every day here in Parliament, they are lobbying to water down the directive — in the Council, but also in the European Parliament where someone got funds and help from the lobbies [at the same time Takeaway, a multinational food delivery company that has cast its riders as employees, wrote an open letter to the Financial Times in support of the directive, reflecting a rift within the employer camp produced by years of worker struggles]. The Commission said there are five criteria of employment. When you meet two out of five criteria, you have to assume an employment relationship. The platforms wanted to increase the criteria that had to be met.
What has been the role of lobbyists in this game? What kind of political actors are they? Thinking, for example, about the Uber Files case.
From the beginning we could see that the role of lobbyists from the platforms has been very important. Generally, lobbyists feel at home in the European Parliament and in the European institutions. They know that the EU is usually far away from citizens and workers. They thought they would get their way.
The first lobbying attempt was by Uber. But even before the announcement from the European Commission, the workers had begun organizing. At the same time, we organized three meetings with hundreds of workers, with workers from all over Europe and even from Latin America. All this right in front of the Commission. They are not used to seeing ordinary workers in the flesh, here in Brussels. I think this was important for the results we achieved. The Commission had no choice but to listen not only to the classical corporate lobbies, but to listen first to this kind of pro-labor alternative lobby.
So, the platforms began to become aware that they had to organize themselves better. They had to have people speaking on their behalf in the European Parliament. At first they had tried to engage a right-wing person who was involved in negotiations, but who was not so pro-lobby. So, the platforms started knocking on door after door. I spoke then with one of these people, he sounded like a caricature. He was repeating Uber’s arguments like a broken record. My colleagues and I thought it was Uber speaking for him.
Then there were the Uber Files revelations in the past few months, and for me they were a confirmation of what I had seen: a major threat. On the list was the French government and in particular Emmanuel Macron. When I first met an Uber lobbyist, he was talking to me about Macron and it’s like they were totally in love. He said Macron was the only one who really understood things. Throughout the legislative process I could see it: Macron was the best defender of the lobbies’ interests. The platforms insisted on having someone from Macron’s party as rapporteur for the European Parliament report. We know from one source, we even have a letter that proves it, that the French government tried to do anything to avoid the inclusion of the presumption of employment. On the other side we have the Spanish government, which has made a law on delivery riders, which looks after the interests of workers.
The European Parliament also passed a minimum wage directive. What was the genesis? Is it enough or do we also need more instruments?
It was a good idea to have a minimum wage directive. Within the European Union, you have a big difference in wage standards and you also have free movement of capital and workers. What was the idea of a minimum wage in the first place? Nobody said we needed the same figure for it throughout Europe. But we said: once a person is working they ought to have a decent living.
The second goal was to reduce social dumping because today we have a Europe built on the free market, separated from workers. That means if you are an entrepreneur you know that there is a big difference in wages (and not just wages) between Western and Eastern Europe. There is a big difference within Europe, which is built on businesses using this competition between workers. Companies, for example, can say they will stay in France only so long as there are no strikes because otherwise they will go and produce in Romania or other countries where labor is much cheaper.
Since I have been in the European Parliament, since 2019, I have been able to see the effects of two crises: the crisis due to COVID-19 and the crisis after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Most of the time when there are crises, we talk about change. We had this dogma in the EU that Europe was made of the market, and if you implement market policies, people will live well and social justice will fall from the sky. That was not the case. We saw the effects of COVID-19. At least since the Gothenburg summit, we have been saying that if we want to maintain the European Union, we cannot think that all policies should be market-driven — we have to think about the social issue. But blah blah blah is at home in the European Union: there are words, but not actions.
On the minimum wage directive, the problem is that it is difficult from an opposition group like ours to improve what the Commission proposes. For example, my group wanted to reiterate that if we wanted a minimum wage that could guarantee a decent living and was different from a mere minimum income, we should stipulate that the minimum wage should be 75 percent of a country’s median wage [the European directive references only 60 percent of the median wage and 50 percent of the average wage] in all member states. For example, in France, 60 percent is not enough because we have a very low minimum wage. It is not enough. That is the reason why we talked about the need to go to 75 percent. In Portugal, for example, the minimum wage is already at 63 percent of the median wage. That is not enough. There is another issue: if you are in a country where all wages are low, even 75 percent of the median wage would be low. You would have to talk about access to a basket of goods and services that can get you to lead a decent life.
However, the discussion about the minimum wage ended quickly because Macron wanted to make it an objective of the French presidency [of the EU Council]. He needed an agreement because we had a presidential election and Macron had been destroying French society for several years. So, he needed to rebuild his social image. In a reenactment of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it was as if he was realizing a social nightmare in France by saying that he was saving European workers from poverty. But there is no reference to the 75 percent figure that we were asking for. However, there are good things in the directive, such as the 80 percent threshold of workers to be covered by collective bargaining. In France, we have 96 percent coverage. But what is the average in Europe? But my problem is that, as far as France is concerned, you are deceiving people. Because people are asking what changes for them with this directive, and not much will change.
The growth of inflation is severely affecting the purchasing power of the working class. Against this backdrop, the European Central Bank is pursuing restrictive monetary policies, such as raising interest rates. Are there alternative ways to combat rising prices?
I think this is a very important question, and let me jump back. I told you that when the European Union was created, it was essentially a market. It was thought that the market would be the magic wand that would solve everything. But many began to think differently.
What do we need in order to lead a decent life? We need heating, electricity, a house, etc. On many things, for example, we left it to the market. The European Commission criticized Holland because the public sector was investing too much in the right to housing. According to this view, the government in Amsterdam was not complying with the laws of fair competition, because it was competing unfairly with the private sector by investing resources in social housing. Then we have a stupid way of pricing energy. There is now a stupid rule at the European level that sets the price of energy: the price of electricity is pegged to the price of gas. This has raised inflation a lot. We have to stop this. Our proposal is to block it, to set a certain price level and say it will not rise above that. We are in the same logic where the working class is paying for not only inflation, but also the environmental transition. We have to ensure that people are guaranteed a decent life. Some things have to be kept outside of the market.
Recently there were government changes in Sweden and Italy, each turning to the Right. What consequences could this have, for example on the same directive on platform work that we were talking about earlier?
Unfortunately, Italy is not the first country where we’ve seen a growth of the far right. We have a two-sided coin. On one side we have an ultraliberalism, and on the other an extreme right growing with a side dish of authoritarianism, fascism, racism, etc. If we want to fight against the latter, I think the solution is to create an alternative; an alternative that allows people to have a decent life, to have a job, and that doesn’t increase inequality. I think we have to be the alternative. At the same time, liberalism increases inequality, and we have to fight it to reduce the influence of the far right as well.
It is really sad to see the outcome of the Italian elections, with Giorgia Meloni’s government representing a new advance of the radical right. In France, too, the far right is continuing to be strong in every election, and we may be the next to have this kind of government. But the next turn has to be ours, that of us, the Left, and we have to create a great social program.
I think the same applies at the European level. We have to show that Europe can provide a decent life for people, that it can fight injustices. For example, if we can get a good directive on platform work, this is not just for food delivery couriers or drivers, it concerns the whole labor law. We have to reiterate that when people work for a company, the company has to respect the workers and has to have obligations. We cannot agree to destroy labor protections, social protection, or labor law itself. I think we must show that people’s lives can change and that we are capable of providing protection.
Going back to the issue of the platform labor directive, for many months in the negotiations, Italy did not have a position. Like Germany, for other reasons. Like Sweden, even before this right-wing government. There, they think everything to do with social needs should be addressed by collective bargaining and not by law. After the Czech presidency of the EU Council, there will be the Swedish one. Then there will be the Spanish one, which is pro-directive. The six months of the Spanish presidency will be important.
The clash between new Italian prime minister Meloni and Macron has again brought the issue of immigration to the forefront of public debate. What is your assessment?
This is a real instrumentalization of the migration issue. We are talking about a few people, who are being used as a scapegoat: it’s easy to say the problem is represented by migrants and not by capitalists. In France, I am also very concerned about the current climate. Recently we had a racist statement inside the National Assembly, inside the parliament against one of our colleagues who is black. One of Marine Le Pen’s party told him to go home, go back to Africa. This is the level of the discussion…
We, on the other hand, believe that we have an obligation to welcome people and that we cannot leave people to die in the middle of the sea. We did an action in the European Parliament remembering the people, the thousands of people, who died in the Mediterranean. This is not possible in 2022. We have the opportunity to help. We have to stop this policy that scares people about migrant reception issues. No one is happy to leave their country, often it is not a choice. We have a lot of responsibility, for wars, for climate change. Western countries have polluted and are continuing to pollute much more than African countries. We have to support a response based on human solidarity.