How do you solve a problem like Uber? Well, the answer most often given by courts in Europe and beyond, is that you don’t accept the ride-hailing platform’s premise of having ‘self-employed entrepreneurs’ rather than employees as drivers.
Earlier on Monday, a Dutch court had ruled in favour of the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV) which had filed a case against Uber, arguing that the platform’s drivers are, in fact, employees of a taxi company and should be granted benefits in line with the taxi sector. The ruling follows similar decisions by British and German courts.
The latest ruling was particularly timely for Monday evening’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL) plenary debate on the own initiative report on “fair working conditions, rights and social protection for platform workers - New forms of employment linked to digital development”.
Uber once again appeared to reject the Dutch Court’s ruling, announcing it would launch an appeal, stating that the company had “no plans to employ drivers in the Netherlands".
It was clearly this statement that prompted Greens/EFA shadow rapporteur on the file, Kim van Sparrentak to ask why, after having lost almost all court cases brought against them on these grounds, Uber and other platforms using the same model, “won’t bury their hatchets, play nice and hire their workers? Instead, they do everything to keep operating outside the law and keep trying to change the rules in their favour with workers paying the price.”
The EMPL report aims to cover not only transport and delivery services but all models of platform work. Regarding employment status the report suggests introducing a general “presumption of employment” meaning that the onus of proving whether a worker is employed, or can be seen as self-employed, will lie with the platform company rather than with the worker, making lawsuits like the Dutch one obsolete.
Kim van Sparrentak MEP asked why, after having lost almost all court cases brought against them on these grounds, Uber and other platforms using the same model, “won’t bury their hatchets, play nice and hire their workers? Instead, they do everything to keep operating outside the law and keep trying to change the rules in their favour with workers paying the price”
Other than that, the report has three main aims, as French rapporteur Sylvie Brunet (Renew) explained. To reinforce social protection for platform workers, such as obtaining the right to compensation in case of accidents or illness, and the portability of rights and contributions when moving to a different job or working for different platforms at the same time.
Secondly, to make working conditions more transparent, introducing rights of appeal and to consultation, which includes transparency of “management by algorithm”, a practice used by many platform companies. Drivers and delivery workers are frequently paid based on algorithmic data, and in some cases even sacked, if they fail to fulfil quotas.
The algorithms needed to be “transparent, ethical and reliable”, and they would, ultimately, have to be controlled by humans, Brunet demanded.
And thirdly, the report strongly advocates for platform workers to be able to organise for collective bargaining: “it is important that these workers are able to join a union”, Brunet said, stressing that the European Parliament was explicitly excluding the possibility of creating a “third status” of employment beyond employee and employer.
The rapporteur was seconded in that notion by Marianne Vind (S&D, SE) who spoke on behalf of the Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN) which contributed to the report. Platforms were trying to establish such a third category, “so they can continue to avoid normal employers’ responsibilities”, Vind said, adding, “but this so-called ‘employee light’ category would be poison to the European social labour market model. We should state that an employee is an employee, is an employee!”
Her fellow Socialist Group member, shadow rapporteur Elisabetta Gualmini summed up the S&D position declaring, “We are not asking for much. We are simply asking for a fair balance of rights and duties, and between economic growth and social compensation.”
"This so-called ‘employee light’ category would be poison to the European social labour market model. We should state that an employee is an employee, is an employee!” Marianne Vind MEP (S&D, SE)
For if, as the Left’s shadow rapporteur Leila Chaibi, put it, “we allow platforms to have workers under their orders without taking responsibility for them, tomorrow it might be all workers who become falsely self-employed.”
With even non-aligned member Daniela Rondinelli of the Italian Five Star Movement fully supporting the report, opposition came only from the nationalist and the far right - not on the grounds that better regulation for platform workers was unnecessary, but that it should be done at national rather than European level.
For the centre-right EPP, Radan Kanev (BG), expressed the group’s support in general but also sounded a word of warning saying, “We have to see the risk that this parliament might try to impose 19th century metrics on 21st century social relations. We must accept the realities of the 21st century labour market, and then adjust our regulation to life, rather than the other way around.”
The European Commission is working on its own legislative proposal on the issue, and Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit welcomed the Parliament’s report as “inspirational”.
While pointing to the fact that the pandemic had led to a “surprisingly” fast development of platform use, saving many traditional businesses in the process and proving that their services meet a true demand, Schmit did not disagree with any of the report’s proposals.
“The time has come to act”, he stated. “We are not aiming to sap the economic importance of the platforms but rather to give them structure, framework and legal certainty. It is unacceptable for the internal market that rules for platforms are such in one country and very different in another.”
The publication of the Commission’s draft legislation on platform workers is scheduled for 8 December.