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The Helpling bankruptcy debate: is 'venture socialism' the solution?

We try our best at the Gig Economy Project to keep track of all the key stories on the gig economy in Europe, but sometimes news slips through our cheap, stitched-together-with-old-pieces-of-string net. One of those that passed by our low-tech tracking system is the bankruptcy of the Dutch section of Helpling, a domestic cleaning platform, in early January. 

Helpling began in Germany, founded by Berlin-based venture capital firm Rocket Internet. It launched in the Netherlands in 2014. Helpling's model was a more stripped down version of Uber's: cleaners are matched with clients for scheduled visits. As platform economy expert Martijn Arets points out in a blog post on Helpling's Dutch demise, what Helpling's app actually offers the worker and the client is very limited.

"The worker and client stay connected after an initial successful gig and can easily work around the platform," he says. "Due to the nature of the transaction, no high-level algorithm is needed and the benefits of data mining are limited. Therefore, there is no strong 'lock in' as with Uber and the platform has to work hard to offer an appropriate service to worker and client to bind them to the platform."

This is a general problem for cleaning and home care services: once the app does the initial job of matching worker with client, it's not clear that it goes on to serve much of a useful function beyond providing a formalised payment service. Part of what "working hard" looks like for the platform is punitive measures to block worker and client from taking their relationship off-line and thus avoiding Helpling's 23-32% commission on each transaction.

In 2021, an Amsterdam Appeals Court found that Helpling cleaners should be considered temporary workers of the platform, and thus entitled to sick leave and compensation if they are fired, in a case brought forward by the FNV union. The verdict appears to have been decisive in the company's Dutch bankruptcy last month. Helpling believed they could not devise a temporary employment model which would be sufficiently profitable and that clients would be willing to pay (a figure which Arets estimates would have been a minimum of €25 per hour). Helpling therefore tried to change the model to one whereby the worker simply pays a one-off fee to the platform and then organises everything else with the client, and another where the cleaner is employed via an outsourcing firm. None of this worked, and by the time of the bankruptcy just 10 cleaners were working on the platform.

What to make of this? For FNV spokesperson Anja Dijkman, the bankruptcy was "a victory" because it "proves that if a platform company keeps to the rules, it cannot exist." In otherwords, the business model only worked if the cleaners were falsely-considered to not be employees of Helpling. Arets takes issue with this conclusion, describing it is as "sour" because "you have to wonder who won". He points out that many of the cleaners which were using Helpling will now re-enter the informal market, where there is even less oversight of their work and thus the potential for exploitation and abuse is higher.

These are important points. In a previous newsletter we highlighted the work of Dutch platform academic Niels Van Doorn on migrant experiences of gig work, finding that for many cleaners, the "regulated deregulation" of the platform felt like a source of security as compared to the informal economy, even if pay rates were lower on the platform. Little has been gained if the end of Helpling has no other impact than to push often vulnerable and disproportionately female workers into the arms of the black market. 

However, that does not mean that the answer is to let Helpling get away with a fake self-employment model, and a broader business model which takes high rates of commission while offering very little to the worker or the client beyond the initial matching process. Joining in the Helpling debate, Tim Christiaens, political philosopher at Tilburg University with a keen interest in the platform economy, advocates instead "venture socialism: governments can invest in ethical alternatives, such as platform cooperatives or public non-profits."

He goes on: "As the Italian economist Marianna Mazzucato has shown, a lot of innovation comes from public investment. The government also has a role to play in the platform economy. In this way we avoid the discussion between the FNV and Arets: private platform companies must indeed disappear if they do not respect labour law, but the jobs for marginalised DIY workers do not have to be lost."

There is a lot of sense in this for cleaning and care platforms in particular, because the technological investment required would be limited, while the main task of the platform would be to regulate the cleaner-client relationship to prevent exploitation and/or abuse, something governments should have proficiency in. A public model operating on this basis, and only required to cover its costs rather than accrue a profit, could take a very small commission on each transaction, thus keeping the price of the service low. 

We have written about Barcelona's development of a public taxi app as an alternative to Uber and co. It could be even more socially responsible to pursue such public sector innovation in an area of the economy where a largely female, disproportionately migrant workforce, who are working in the enclosed spaces of people's homes, are highly vulnerable. Rather than replacing old forms of exploitation with new ones, we can find models which treat workers with respect and dignity.

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

Gig Economy news round-up

  • DELIVEROO LOSE APPEAL IN ITALY ON EMPLOYMENT STATUS: British-based food delivery platform Deliveroo lost at the Milan Court of Appeal last week, as the judge found that its riders are subordinate workers. The case was brought forward by Giuseppe Di Maggio, a Deliveroo rider and member of the Uiltucs union. Deliveroo will now have to employ Di Maggio on a full-time, 40-hours a week basis. It's the first time the company has lost such a case at appeal stage in Italy, which could lead to other riders to lodge their own court cases. Gennaro Strazzullo, Uiltucs national secretary, said the result will strengthen the union's hand in negotiations with the platform owners' associations, Assodelivery and Confcommercio. Read more here
  • SWEDISH PRESIDENCY OF EU COUNCIL GETS TO WORK ON PLATFORM WORK DIRECTIVE: Sweden, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, has sent out a note to other member-states seeking to clarify their views on the Platform Work Directive, with a specific focus on the key issue of the presumption of employment. EurActiv have seen the note and report that it seeks clarification of perspectives on the "the triggering, applicability and fulfilling of the legal presumption". The note also asks about the potential affect of the Directive on tax, criminal and social security proceedings. The Swedish Government backed the proposal of the Czech Presidency in December which would have significantly weakened the European Commission's draft text. The Czech text did not pass due to a 'blocking minority' of member-states who want to see a legally-strong presumption of employment. The first working group meeting under the Swedish Presidency also took place this week. Read more here.
  • 'SHAME ON WOLT': PRAGUE COURIERS STRIKE: Wolt couriers in Prague went on strike on Tuesday [14 February] for the second time in a matter of weeks. The couriers are protesting cuts in pay and the introduction of a new pricing system which is not transparent and has ended fixed-rates per order. Couriers believe wages have fallen by up to 20%, and that is without accounting for the impact of inflation. The riders in the Czech capital are also unhappy about how many new couriers the company has taken on in recent times, intensifying the competition. "There are a lot of us now and we fight hard with other couriers for every order," one rider, Pavel, said. The company reportedly fears the spread of the protests to towns and cities beyond Prague, where working conditions are said to be even worse, and has been sending out questionnaires to couriers for feedback. Read more here
  • GETIR TO FIRE OFFICE STAFF IN THE UK: Getir, Europe's dominant grocery delivery platform, is set to fire a section of its UK staff after its merger with Gorillas at the end of last year. The Turkish-based platform axed 100 staff in its US office last week, and now plans are being deployed for further cutbacks in the UK. The company is in the process of merging its operations with those of what was previously Gorillas, with some roles considered to be overlapping. The takeover valued the merged companies at $10 billion. Getir cut 14% of its global workforce in June 2022, and these cuts are not anticipated to be on that scale. It comes after food delivery platforms Deliveroo and Glovo both announced significant office cutbacks in recent weeks. Read more here
  • LONDON DEMO MARKS TWO YEARS SINCE BOLT DRIVER'S DEATH: The IWGB union held a vigil on Friday [17 February] to mark the two year anniversary of Gabriel Bringye's death, who was killed while working for the Bolt private hire platform in London. Bringye was stabbed to death in 2021 after responding to a 'fake fare' from a gang who planned to rob him. 'Gabriel's Campaign for Driver Safety', led by the IWGB and Bringye's bereaved family, has pushed Bolt to introduce a Formal Care Team, but the campaign say the service is inadequate and ineffective. The IWGB say that "despite repeated requests" Bolt has refused to meet with Bringye's family to discuss their concerns. The campaign is calling for a number of changes to improve driver safety including customer ID checks and a properly functioning driver complaints and support system. Renata Bringye, Gabriel's sister who works as a private hire driver, said that they "live in fear" as most drivers "have been hurt or harassed on the job". Read more here.

On GEP this week

Miriam Oliver, Georgia Nelson - The women behind ChatGPT: is clickwork a step forwards or backwards for gender equality?

The success of ChatGPT has led many to herald ‘the age of AI’. But behind artificial intelligence like ChatGPT are clickworkers in the global South who are disproportionately female. Writing for the Gig Economy Project, Miriam Oliver and George Nelson examine whether clickwork is liberating women or consigning them to a life of double-exploitation in the home.
From around the web
Collective bargaining in the platform economy: A mapping exercise of existing initiatives

Mariagrazia Lamannis, a PhD student at the ‘Magna Græcia’ University of Catanzaro in Italy, maps collective bargaining in the gig economy in this report for the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).
"How much money do Uber and Lyft drivers make on each ride? Colorado Democrats want to show the math."

Interesting report by Sam Tabachnik in the Denver Post on The Gig Worker Transparency Bill introduced to Colorado's Senate last month which would require digital labour platforms to show how much drivers earn on each ride and how much commission the platform takes.
Didi's Revival shows China can't live without big tech

Tracy Wen Liu writes in Wired on how Didi, China's biggest ridehail platform, has survived despite drastic regulatory action which cut it off completely from app stores.

Upcoming events

- The Leeds Index of Platform Labour will launch its global database of platform worker resistance on 27 March at a hybrid event in London. Click here for full details.

- The UNI Global Union will host a hybrid event on 'dark stores' and app-based grocery delivery, 28 March in Brussels, Belgium, from 3-4.30pm. Click here for more details and to register. 

- Wage Indicator will host a webinar on women in web-based gig work on Friday 31 March, 2-3.30pm. Click here for full details and to register.

- The Platform Labor Project and the Global Digital Cultures Initiative are holding a hybrid international conference on 'Global Perspectives on platforms, labour and social re-production', at the University of Amsterdam, 27-28 June. Details here

Know of upcoming events we should be highlighting? Let us know at

Get Involved

The Gig Economy Project is a media network for gig workers and we welcome contributions from workers, writers, academics, activists - anyone who wants to stand up for workers' rights in the gig economy.

If you would like to write for the site, discuss arranging an interview with GEP, or simply have information about developments in the gig economy in Europe you think we should be aware of, get in touch. 

Contact project co-ordinator Ben Wray at or send a direct message to the Twitter: @project_gig.

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