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Trade unions prepare their "red line" on Platform Work Directive

The Gig Economy Project was in attendance at the platform work conference of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) this week. Trade union organisers, gig workers and a smattering of politicians from across Europe gathered in Madrid for two days. What did we learn?

First, the atmosphere around the EU Platform Work Directive appears to be turning rather sour. The talk was one of "frustration" and where the trade union movement should draw its "red line" over whether to support the final text of the Directive at all.

The ETUC's confederal secretary, Ludovic Voet, insisted that the inclusion of any binding criteria in the presumption of employment, whether it's the Commission's proposal for two out of five or the Council's proposal for three out of seven, would not be effective in tackling false self-employment and would even block platform workers from going to court on a case-by-case basis, as they have been doing (largely successfully) across Europe until now. The ETUC is backing the proposal of the Parliament, which has advocated a general presumption of employment, akin to Spain's 'Rider Law', but it seems unlikely at this point that the Council is going to agree to that. Voet said the red line was a Directive which is not "under what we have at the moment", and warned that they would "launch a legal guerrilla if the Directive is weak". 

Kim Van Sparrentak, Greens MEP and shadow rapporteur on the Directive, was just as downbeat, saying that the proposal of the Council, which represents the member-states in the EU, "would be a step back from where we are right now”, that it would "legalise yellow unions" and it would be "better to have no Directive". Van Sparrentak, who is on the inside of the 'trilogue' negotiations between the Parliament and the Council, agreed that "our bottom line is that [the Directive] is better than the status quo" but said that “it’s really hard to see where the agreement comes from” because both sides were so far apart.

Livia Spera, General Secretary of the European Transport Federation, agreed with the criticisms of the Council's proposal but warned that if no agreement is found and the Directive is not passed, there's little chance that "we are going to get anything better" in the next parliamentary term, which begins following the European Parliament elections in May 2024. The political horizon looks so grim because opinion polls suggest that the EP elections will see the size of the right-wing bloc, and the far-right in particular, grow substantially. In most national elections the right-wing are advancing as well, so they are likely to tighten their grip on the Council too.

That puts greater pressure on trying to deliver a strong Directive before the 2019-2024 term expires, with a hard deadline of April next year. However, part of the reason why getting a decent Directive over the line within the next six months looks unlikely is because the centre-left governments which do exist in Europe are far from being consistently committed to a strong presumption of employment.

That was evident when listening to William Vandezande, Cabinet of Minister for Economy & Labour
in Belgium, which is a coalition government led by the Social Democrats. Belgium 
introduced a platform work law in January that was based on a similar criteria as has been proposed by the Commission and the Council. All of the major digital labour platforms said their workers did not meet the criteria and the Belgian Government has done nothing to enforce the law, because the law contains no enforcement mechanisms. One would think that Vandezande would show some humility in the face of this dismal outcome, but he instead told the conference that 10 months was "too early to judge" the law, adding that “we do trust that our law will have an impact, because it is a law that is inspired by the proposal of Nicolas Smit [responsible for the Platform Work Directive on the European Commission] and goes along with the proposal of the Council."

That is a bewildering statement. Usually you test the theory against the facts, and if the facts don't fit the theory you change the theory. Instead, Vandezande is defending the theory of a presumption of employment criteria in the hope that it will miraculously overcome the facts: that it hasn't worked in Belgium! When Belgian trade-unionists pushed back on this obvious fallacy, Vandezande insisted that "if we have a law we have to to try to give it some life" as if that's the job of trade unionists, not of government, and added that "it’s better than not having any law because we can improve it". This would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. The Belgian Government takes over the presidency of the EU from Spain in January: Vandezande's comments in Madrid do not inspire confidence.

On a more positive note, the conference was marked by a high-level of discussion around the question of migrant gig workers and trade unions. Migrants make up a majority of gig workers in most European countries, many of whom operate without the legal right-to-work, so making them central to trade union activity in this part of the economy is both essential and complicated. The fact that a key-note speech and a workshop was dedicated to this shows the trade union movement is at least thinking about the need to grapple with the issues.

In the key-note, Barbara Orth from Freie Universität Berlin presented the findings of her research, which has been ongoing since 2021, into how and why migrants enter the gig economy in the German capital. While there is not space to go into detail here, Orth argued that the key challenges to union organising are the fact that these workers often do not identify with the work as they see it as something temporary or a side-job, and that they will always prioritise their visa and residency status first, which can potentially be jeopardised if they get fired for organising.

"They need to be safe from deportation before you talk to them about unionisation," Orth said. 

In this sense, the Platform Work Directive may not prove to be very useful for many of these workers unless there's a strong firewall between data collected from labour inspections and the police. Dr Inga Sabanova, Policy Officer at the FES Competence Centre on the Future of Work, noted at the workshop that in many European countries that is not currently the case. She explained that the 2009 Employers Sanctions' Directive, which was ostensibly a measure to clamp down on bosses for illegal hiring and to protect undocumented workers, has actually been used as a migration law enforcement tool. The hostile political environment towards migrants means that any legislation relating to gig work which draws them closer to the state runs the risk (intentional or otherwise) of worsening an already terrible situation for many migrant gig workers in Europe.

That brings us back to the changing winds of European politics, which are growing increasingly ugly for migrants and for the prospects of advancing workers' rights in the platform economy. We can lament that, but the far-right has not grown in a vacuum: left parties have no divine right to the votes of the working class if they do not deliver for them in practise. The Platform Work Directive looks at risk of being just the latest in a long-line of disappointments, for which the traditional parties of 'social democracy' hold a great deal of responsibility.

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

Gig Economy news round-up

  • CRIMINAL COMPLAINT LODGED AGAINST UBER EATS IN SPAIN: One week after a criminal complaint was filed against Glovo, a very similar complaint was also lodged against Uber Eats Spain for fake self-employment and defrauding the Treasury. The same coalition of RidersXDirechos, Elité Taxi Barcelona and Taxi Project 2.0, organised through the Observatory for Algorithms, Work and Society, made the claim on Wednesday [27 September], finding that Uber Eats Spain has broken the Penal Code due to falsely hiring its riders as self-employed since 2017. Uber Eats Spain responded to the Rider Law, which required food delivery platforms to employ their workers following a Supreme Court verdict to that effect in 2020, by establishing a sub-contractor system of employment, but by August 2022, a year after the Rider Law passed, the Silicon Valley platform began giving riders the option to work under a freelancer model again, after complaining to the Ministry of Labour that they were losing out because Glovo, their largest competitor in the southern European country, had continued to hire its workers as self-employed. The criminal complaint could lead to prison sentences and/or large fines for Uber Eats Spain executives if they're found guilty. The Spanish Government changed the Penal Code in 2022 to make false self-employment a criminal offense. “Since the Uber Files appeared, it has been shown that Uber operates as a criminal organisation,” Tito Álvarez, leader of Elité Taxi Barcelona, said after the criminal complaint was issued. "We want them to be tried as a criminal organisation." Click here to read more.
  • MILAN COURT TELLS UBER EATS TO REVOKE THE SACKING OF 4,000 RIDERS: A court in Milan has found that the mass firing of 4,000 Uber Eats riders in June was illegal. The de-activation of the riders from the app is part of Uber Eats' exit from the Italian market, which took place on 15 June. The workers were told of the firing just a month in advance, but the Milan court found that such a decision must be communicated 180 days in advance. The court also found that these riders should have been legally considered to be employees of Uber Eats, and consequently the company was required to consult with their union representatives before announcing the dismissal. Uber Eats now have to revoke the lay-off's and engage with the unions to negotiate redundancy packages. The three unions, NIdiL Cgil, Filcams Cgil and Filt Cgil, which brought the case forward said that they were "totally satisfied with the extraordinary result," and that it "demonstrated once again that all the rights of employed workers must be applied to riders". Read more here.
  • LONDON PROTEST AGAINST JUST EAT 'MASS ROBO-FIRING': Worker Info Exchange (WIE) and the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) protested at Just Eat's London offices on Tuesday [26 September], claiming that the company "unfairly" de-activated 30 riders from the app in the Brick Lane area of East London. In a statement following the protest, WIE said that the riders were "recently dismissed without notice, warning or right of appeal based on spurious allegations of detected 'fraudulent activity'". The fraud claims relate to accusation that riders were using a phone or phone number that had previously been used by another worker and the sharing of bank details. Just Eat, Europe's largest food delivery platform, announced in March that they were cutting their 'Scoober' service, where riders were employed, in the UK, with approximately 1,700 couriers axed. James Farrer, Director of WIE, a campaign group for workers' data rights, said: "Just Eat have flouted employment law for years to cheat the most vulnerable workers out of their right to the national living wage and holiday pay. Now Just Eat are taking further advantage of Britain's notoriously lax enforcement regime to grossly violate data protection law also by unleashing algorithms to surveil, performance manage and brutally purge their own workforce." Read more here.
  • UBER EATS AND GETIR ESTABLISH PARTNERSHIP: The service of embattled Turkish grocery delivery platform Getir will now be made available on Uber Eats' app, a partnership which will at first launch in the UK before being rolled-out in Germany and the Netherlands. The tie-up will expand the grocery delivery options available to Uber Eats' customers and is expected to speed-up delivery times, after the company moved into the grocery delivery space in London earlier this year. Getir riders, who are employed, will fulfil the orders placed on Uber Eats' app. Turancan Salur, Getir’s regional general manager, sold the partnership as win-win for both companies, as Uber Eats could make use of "Getir’s wide range of grocery and convenience products" while Getir could tap into "Uber Eats’ large pool of customers". Getir is Europe's largest grocery delivery platform but has left Spain, France, Italy and Portugal this year, while it recently auctioned off equipment in the UK to raise cash. It announced 2,500 job cuts worldwide in August and raised $500 million in a new funding round in September, at a valuation of $2.5 billion, about 10% of its peak valuation before the easing of the pandemic and rise in inflation saw consumer demand sharply fall. Read more here.   
  • SPAIN: FAR-RIGHT VOX'S LEGAL APPEAL AGAINST 'RIDER LAW' REJECTED: Spanish far-right party Vox has seen it's appeal to have the 'Rider Law' struck down rejected. The appeal was supported by centre-right party Partido Popular (PP), the largest in the Spanish Parliament. The Rider Law was passed in 2021, establishing a legal presumption of employment in the food delivery sector, following a Supreme Court verdict in 2020 which found that riders were employees. Vox had argued that the use of a Decree Law was "abusive" because no extraordinary and urgent need was required for it, and that this mechanism for passing the law meant the government was "avoiding" necessary debate on an issue that "can lead to unemployment and misery to a group that needs help". A PP lawyer also argued "there is no extraordinary and urgent need" for the law. A plenary session of the Constitutional Court found the opposite to be the case, thus validating the law, the only one of its kind in Europe today. Read more here here.
  • DELIVEROO SOUGHT CHANGE TO IRISH LAWS ON INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS' WORK STATUS: British food delivery platform Deliveroo lobbied Leo Varadkar, the ex-Irish Taoiseach, to change the work status of international students so that they can work more hours. Irish student visas permit students to work 20 hours a week in the country and are barred from being self-employed. Deliveroo, the largest food delivery platform in the Republic of Ireland, wrote to Varadkar, who at that time was Minister for Enterprise, over two years ago that “the suitability of flexible platform work...acts as a significant pull factor” for international students, according to the Irish Times, which explained that the letter formed "part of extensive lobbying by Deliveroo to have the Government relax employment legislation surrounding these visa holders". Despite the fact that international students cannot legally work as self-employed in the country, riders' and unions say that students from countries outside the EU, like Brazil, make-up a very large section of Deliveroo's workforce by sub-letting accounts for €100-150 per week, plus a 20 per cent charge on the income of the riders to cover tax, according to an investigation by the newspaper. Deliveroo said they took illegal working on their platform "extremely seriously", but Fiachra Ó Luain, co-founder of the English Language Students Union, said Deliveroo should be "simply paying people properly" rather than seeking to change the laws, and said that the EU Platform Work Directive was an opportunity to "mobilise against modern day slavery". Read more here.

Have we missed something important? You can help keep us informed by sending information to
From around the web
Notebook: Riders On The Storm. Delivery platform workers in struggle

Núria Soto Aliaga of RidersXDerechos and food delivery co-op Mensakas writes about her experience of riders' struggle in this notebook for a series on syndicalist feminism by 'Laboratoria' (in Spanish). 

Shutting Down Uber? Employment Status and the EU’s Proposed Platform Work Directive

Labour law and human rights academics M. Six Silberman, Jeremias Adams-Prassl, Halefom Abraha and Sangh Rakshita take aim at Uber's recent broadside against a presumption of employment in the Platform Work Directive, in Oxford University's business law blog . 
Cleaning and care workers on platforms are salaried and not self-employed (STSJ Catalonia 1/3/2022 and Social 15 of Barcelona June 20, 2023)

University of Valencia labour law professor Adrián Todolí writes about cleaning and care platform workers in Spain, including a recent court ruling in Barcelona (in Spanish).

Upcoming events

- A University of Innsbruck research project on the reactions and behaviours of gig workers towards algorithmic management is looking for food delivery couriers to interview. The interviews are compensated. Click here fo details.

- The next 'trilogue' negotiations over the EU Platform Work Directive will be held on 3 October.

- INDL-6, the sixth annual conference of the International Network on Digital Labor, is hosting a conference in Berlin on 'Digital Labor in wake of pandemic times', 9-11 October. The conference is open to all and free to register. Click here for full details.

-  COST Action P-WILL is holding a seminar on 'Towards a fairer platform work: Policy processes and social demands', in Milan, Friday 13 October. You can join in person or online and it's free registration. Click here for full details.

- WageIndicator is hosting an online conference on 'A Level Playing Field for Gig Workers', 27 October. Click here for full details and to register.

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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