The MEP fighting for the rights of platform workers

Leïla Chaibi (GUE/NGL, FR) was an activist before becoming an elected politician; as Sean Craig discovers, her advocacy in Parliament for delivery drivers straddles the line between both
An Uber Eats rider in Poland | Photo: Alamy

By Sean Craig

Sean Craig is a business and investigative journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, the Financial Post, BuzzFeed News and Vice.

23 Nov 2022

If there’s one person in Brussels, above all, who has made food part and parcel of their politics, it’s Leïla Chaibi.

After graduating from Sciences Po Toulouse in 2005, the budding French leftist spent the decade of Daft Punk pulling daft pranks, often with a culinary twist.

As co-founder of the activist group L’Appel et la Pioche (a pun on “the pick and shovel”, spelt as if to say “the appeal” and shovel), Chaibi was particularly well-known for organising a unique series of protests in large-chain supermarkets around Paris.

On the last day of the month, protesters would turn up at a major grocer and, making clear their objection to rising food prices, pull items such as crips, fresh raspberries, prosciutto and other treats off the shelves to make a picnic for themselves – in the store.

The theatrical gesture drew media attention and unlikely support. During one 2009 “picnic” in a branch of Carrefour in suburban Paris, the cashiers burst into applause (the security guards not so much).

Chaibi was particularly well-known for organising a unique series of protests in large-chain supermarkets around Paris

The price of food wasn’t the only political issue for which the means of protest proved to be edible. In 2011, now aligned with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – the rabble-rousing socialist who won a surprise 22 per cent of the vote in this year’s French presidential election – Chaibi brought a basket of andouillettes to the Paris office of the ratings agency Moody’s.

The famously flavoursome variety of sausage, made from pork intestine, is graded on the AAAAA (five As) system. Moody’s and other United States ratings agencies, still bruised by reputational fallout for their role in the housing bubble that caused the US subprime crisis, were the target of European scepticism over their own letter-grade system for rating sovereign debt.

While the then-serving German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Commission president, Jose Manuel Barosso, kept their criticism of AAA downgrades to their podiums, L’Appel et la Pioche and Mélenchon (who participated in the sausage basket demonstration) took what they called the “symbolic and funny” approach. At Carrefour and at Moody’s, the stunts worked – media turned up, stories were written, and nobody got hurt.

But not all Chaibi’s friends thought her antics were great ideas. “You will end up in prison,” one told her after the grocery protests, according to the French newspaper Libération.

Instead, she ended up in the European Parliament. Elected in 2019 as a member of The Left, Chaibi has become one of the most active MEPs on one of the most high-profile issues in the EU: the rights of the growing legions of gig workers, many of whom work for food delivery platforms.

Chaibi first tabled a proposal for platform worker rights in November 2020. In the 2000s, she was a self-described “precarious” worker, writing for marketing companies and doing administrative work: “We can’t unionise since we change companies every month,” she told Libération in 2009.

There are now a lot more workers in a similar position. As of December 2021, more than 28 million people in the European Union work for digital platforms and their ranks are expected to swell to 43 million by 2025, according to the European Commission.

The majority are freelance workers, participants in the so-called “gig economy” that proliferated alongside the technology boom of the last decade (or the “Uber-isation of everything” as it became known in the press).

Now girding for a recession, the platforms that rely on gig workers, many of which are facing depleted stock valuations, are also facing potential regulation in the EU that could reclassify more than four million gig workers as employees rather than independent contractors. It would compel the platforms to guarantee those workers a minimum wage, paid leave and unemployment insurance.

The strength of the draft rules by the European Commission, put forward last December, took almost everyone by surprise, says Chaibi, who is now The Left’s negotiator on the proposal.

“The proposal from the Commission was very ambitious, and the lobby was very upset because they didn’t expect the Commission was going to announce the presumption of employment,” she says.

The Left, the Greens and the Socialists & Democrats – whose Italian MEP Elisabetta Gualmini is Parliament’s negotiator on the platform workers’ directive – have largely been supportive, but divisions within EU Member States and other parliamentary groups, namely the centre-right EPP, has led to a struggle to find a compromise, especially with concerns the directive could become too wide-ranging and make it difficult for platforms to classify genuine freelancers.

Some platforms have suggested job losses could ensue if the directive is overly broad, while others have argued some workers who want contractor status could have their professional status challenged.

“For the four million that would potentially get presumption of employment, they don’t decide the price of the service, they don’t decide the way to deliver it, they do their job as it is instructed to them by the platform,” Chaibi says. “So it’s set up in a way where the advantages of self-employed status are not possible anymore.”

Negotiations among parliamentarians are ongoing and a vote is expected at the Employment Committee in late November.

Over the summer, the already tense negotiations to hammer out a compromise on gig worker rights were blindsided by one of the most explosive whistleblower leaks in Silicon Valley history.

Mark MacGann, a former Uber executive, provided files on the company’s internal workings from 2013 to 2017 to several news organisations including The Guardian. High-profile figures including Emmanuel Macron (then a French minister) and Neelie Kroes (then the EU’s digital commissioner) were alleged to have secretly helped the platform’s lobbyists. The gig worker issue widened from one about employment rights to a full-blown reckoning over corporate lobbying and access to power, something upon which Chaibi has capitalised.

“You have to decide if you’re working for the people who have elected you or the lobby”

As an MEP, she commissioned L’Observatoire des Multinationales, a Paris-based corporate watchdog, to investigate lobbying activity by digital platforms, including the British food delivery firm Deliveroo, Finnish grocery delivery firm Wolt, and German food delivery firm Delivery Hero alongside Uber.

L’Observatoire noted growing lobbying expenses reported in the European Union Transparency Register – Uber spent €700,000 last year, 14 times what it spent in 2014, Wolt spent €400,000, and Deliveroo and Delivery Hero €100,000.

Meanwhile, the documents released by MacGann suggest Uber invested $90m (€87m) in its global lobbying budget in 2016 alone.

The company has held at least 70 high-level meetings with the Commission, including 24 with commissioners, since December 2014, which led one expert to wonder about the accuracy of the reported expenses.

“I think we have to raise questions about the lobbying budget, because with the Uber files coming out it actually became quite clear a lot more was spent on lobbying than we thought initially,” says Bram Vranken, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory.

“MacGann raises quite a lot of questions about what’s in the EU Transparency Register, and how reliable that is.”

Chaibi used one of Parliament’s recent jaunts to Strasbourg to highlight the lobby’s presence. EPP parliamentarians met with the European Tech Alliance, an industry lobby group that includes Wolt and Delivery Hero among its members, on 19 October in the European Parliament building.

“The lobby is very skilled and they’re trying to find allies in the EPP group,” Chaibi tells The Parliament. “You have to decide if you’re working for the people who have elected you or the lobby.”

Seeing there weren’t any workers invited to an event where industry reps lined up to express their concerns about the platform worker directive to EPP MEPs, Chaibi tipped some off.

“You didn’t have any workers,” she said at the time. “So I decided to send the information to two workers.” Brahim Ben Ali, a founder of the French Uber drivers’ trade union, and Leila Ouadah, a Deliveroo riders’ representative, interrupted the meeting.

At least one EPP MEP was none too pleased. “Ignorant activists that interrupt meetings and obviously not even caring if the recipients of his ‘message’ even understand it can indeed just shut up,” said Sweden’s Sara Skyttedal, in a tweet.

As a municipal candidate in Paris in 2014, Chaibi handed out plates of fries instead of campaign flyers to passersby. “The tray of fries is universal,” she told Le Parisien.

To accompany their final round of negotiations on the platform worker directive, MEPs might consider a side-order of that unifying dish.

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