Reflections on labour platforms and their political actions, in light of the recent agreement on a EU Directive to regulate them

Reflections on labour platforms and their political actions, in light of the recent agreement on a EU Directive to regulate them

By Felipe Diez, 8th April 2024

In December 2023, DFF organised a Platform Workers Strategic Workshop in Lisbon, Portugal. In this blog post, Felipe Diez, member of Observatorio del Trabajo, Algoritmo y Sociedad (Observatorio TAS),which co-organised the workshop in partnership with DFF, shares some sociopolitical insights on the topic. Original version in Spanish.

As we know, among the various and still persistent consequences stemming from the Great Recession of 2008, one of the fundamental ones has been the marked technological optimism that was unleashed, made possible by the communion between venture capital, eager to invest in new sectors that would captivate the world­, and the dizzying and chaotic world of start-ups, which operate with the no lesser objective of revolutionising different markets to transform the way certain things are done, promising colossal rates of return.

In this speculative adventure, one of the preferred focuses areas has been that of labour platforms, where the disruptive mission depends no more and no less than on legitimising a new labour model: the collaborator, a figure that would be halfway between the self-employed worker and the salaried one. In its ideal version, it would be a type of self-employed worker who would enjoy certain coverages and basic protections: fixed hourly rate, accident insurance, vacation, sick leave, night shift bonus, and right to training. The objective would be to provide citizens with the possibility of generating new income streams through flexible work, although at the cost of renouncing their rights to unionisation, negotiation, fixed salary, guaranteed coverage and rest, in addition to the obligation to pay their own welfare contributions.

As expected, in this ambitious journey, platforms have encountered different types of problems and resistances depending on each territory. There are countries, like France, where despite having opened a long judicial conflict and having two Supreme Court rulings against them, their rise has been attempted to be capitalised on as a bet on the future by liberal governments. On the contrary, in those where obstacles have been harder and the corresponding institutions have opposed their unregulated proliferation, a tough political, judicial, and media battle has ensued, leading to situations of workplace harassment, union persecution, and various violations of fundamental rights.

Last December, co-organised in partnership with Observatorio TAS,  DFF held a Platform Workers Strategic Workshop in Lisbon, Portugal. This short video features some key reflections from some of the participants in the event.

All this means that beyond the development of revolutionary technologies to generate new sources of income, the critical point that marks the success or failure of these types of companies actually depends on the political work they are capable of developing, because, being a sector that proposes a form of organisation that transgresses labour rights and democratic agreements, sooner rather than later they collide head-on with different regulations. This is a pre-determined moment in a platform’s route, and it would be difficult to imagine it otherwise. And therefore, it would also be simply naive to think that venture capital will be seduced exclusively by viable companies that respect established rights, as it has been proven to have a weakness for those willing to promote deregulation and subvert the status quo to their advantage.

That is why, over these years, we have been able to witness how labour platforms have deployed all kinds of strategies to achieve their objectives, directly affecting the lives of thousands of workers and calling into question the foundations that support regulatory frameworks. This is what is most delicate. Unfortunately, however, experience invites us to think that the most aggressive and radical platforms are the ones that will have the greatest chances of obtaining the funding that allows them to expand worldwide. It is becoming clear that recklessness and irresponsibility are some of the most valued traits when ensuring returns to investors.

In this sense, the scant willingness that has existed around the world to sanction platform entrepreneurs allows us to understand one of the underlying points of the problem. It seems that the objective of digitisation and the adaptation of the productive structure of each country facing the near future, which comes precisely with this type of companies, has transformed the top management of technology companies and their financiers into untouchables. The violation of workers’ rights in this sector has become a daily and unpunished act, and there is a feeling that there is a certain margin of error in the new modes of work until the companies find the right balance at some point. In the meantime, we are witnessing the creation of financial bubbles and labour experiments that practice an “anything goes” policy.

Let’s think, for example, of the case of WeWork. It is a start-up dedicated to managing coworking spaces that at one point was valued at the scandalous figure of 47 billion USD, and that in a few weeks collapsed, leaving thousands of employees on the street. We are talking about an ordinary company, dedicated to a traditional and ordinary matter, but with a digital touch, which was enough to seduce investors and create its own bubble. The fact is that, after its collapse, its CEO, thanks to the symbolic act of selling his own shares in time –”A soldier who runs away can fight another war” they would say in my country– left the company with over a billion USD in his pockets. Something that can only be described as absurd. We are talking about a young man who, with 10 years of work dedicated to selling and inflating a company that was never profitable, finally managed to become a billionaire. And he hasn’t spent a single second in jail. Sweet deal.

In this way, we could say that the different administrations have been falling prey to doubts, seeing with their own eyes how, day by day, the most ordinary practices question established limits, and have barely shown the capacity to respond to the spectacular force of action of the billionaire companies and their technologies, which in a few months create activity for thousands of workers of the most diverse types, generating with it a whole critique of the bureaucracy of the State and its regulations. And we know well that there is no better pressure tool than a growing market, however irregular its management may be.

Consequently, although we are facing a model that is not sustainable over time and that puts the foundations of democracies at risk, it is impossible to deny that it has gradually imposed itself. Having said that, the question is obvious: how far does the sovereignty of countries really go in the face of the self-proclaimed future of the economy?

Despite all this scenario, generally, when thinking about labour platforms and their short but intense disruptive journey against labour rights, one tends to fall into a reflection that focuses almost exclusively on the main aspects of the judicial conflicts they have unleashed or on the scarce legislative processes they been featured in. This is clearly a problem. The discussion has focused mainly on legal technicalities and normative intricacies about the framework they should have in different legislative frameworks, but it has been difficult to pave the way to talk in depth about their collaborator figure, the role that labour algorithms are playing, the discursive or ideological background that supports them, their current and future consequences, or the society project they represent.

Throughout this time, the platform economy has not only been transforming modes of work, but has also fundamentally managed to bring into discussion the margins of what we understand as a salaried worker and a freelancer, or a worker and an entrepreneur. We are talking about a well defined business movement that has developed the necessary technologies and discourses to break down structural barriers and expand the frontiers of entrepreneurship, even to the extent of bringing it to the palm of our hand. Indeed, nowadays there is a real possibility of becoming a multitasking small entrepreneur without significant costs involved.

However, in the vast majority of cases, these are precarious undertakings, since everything depends on the self-management capacity that each worker has in their effort to capitalise on ordinary resources: a motorcycle for delivery, a room to host guests in their own home, a car to be a driver, or the mere motivation to clean, provide care, or repair. It is about our immediate context being seen from a productive logic that encourages us to undertake, to take risks.

Thus, since they began to operate, we have seen all kinds of people  –but mainly migrants, unemployed individuals, undocumented persons, homemakers, and young people– not organising themselves to become legitimate political actors trying to improve their conditions, but rather launching themselves into the market as agents in perfect conditions, who can enter into competition assuming the costs and consequences of their activity. In other words, this means that what should be a political problem affecting society as a whole is commodified and reduced to an individual problem. All of which is nothing more than an attempt to resignify precariousness, depoliticise it, and lead it towards the market.

Click here to read the public statement by participant organisations in the platform workers’ movement in response to the EU Platform Work Directive agreement on 11 March. If your group would like to support this statement, send an e-mail with your organisation, website/social media handle and country to Picture by The Left

Nevertheless, we must also emphasise that resistance has been generated against the seductive advance of these ideas. In different parts of the world, workers have organised into grassroots movements, shaping and empowering an entire citizenry that advocates for a basic aspect of any democracy: regulation and protection, emphasising data collection, algorithmic transparency, the right to unionise, to disconnect, privacy, limits on working hours, defense of the employment contract, and above all, against the transfer of costs and risks of activity to workers.

Although these movements have been the driving force behind some legislative initiatives, the fact is that companies have known how to deploy all their deregulatory power through lobbying and public pressure campaigns to try to stop them. The best example is what happened with California’s AB5 Law, which was overturned by the most expensive political campaign in the history of the state ­–led by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Postmates– which saw all kinds of pressures against workers and citizens.

However, despite all this, today we have few but significant victories that should mark the way forward. Among them is the recent approval of the EU Platform Work Directive to regulate the sector, which includes a presumption of employment for all service platform workers and algorithmic transparency obligations for platforms, or Spain’s “Rider Law”, also based on a presumption of employment for delivery workers, and which also includes their representatives’ access to the parameters used by algorithms to organise their work.

In summary, it is clear that the labour platform sector has managed to cover itself under the disruptive and promising veil provided by its technological advances, which sometimes makes it difficult to assess its scope. We are facing a movement with a defined proposal that far exceeds the aspirations of a mere set of dreamy ventures. For this reason, this is not a merely circumstantial matter, but a historical process instead.

It would be a mistake to be guided by isolated facts and not try to see the whole picture in perspective. We would be mistaken if we thought that certain judgments or specific laws will bring an end to this movement, as if it were a digital trend that will disappear without a trace, or as if they had not managed to impose their vision elsewhere in the world. In these few years, it has become clear that the platform economy has launched a full-scale campaign to modify labour regulation and transform its principles.

It is up to us to defend the rights we have conquered.

Felipe Diez is a Sociologist and a PhD student in Sociology and Anthropology at the Complutense University of Madrid, a member of Observatorio TAS and a spokesperson for Riders x Derechos. He is also a former Deliveroo rider and was part of the discussion group for the Spanish Rider Law with the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT) syndicate.