Platform workers are becoming more and more commonplace
Delivery, transport, but also business services: more and more workers are opting for self-employed status by using online platforms to obtain assignments. This is a common phenomenon throughout the European Union.
The silhouettes on bicycles, with their square, black or light blue backpacks, have become familiar figures in our cities. Nobody is surprised to see them waiting in front of restaurants or fast-food chains, before setting off to deliver an order to the consumer, on the command of their smartphone. From Madrid to Warsaw or Paris, services like UberEats or Deliveroo have entered the popular consciousness.
These “digital work platforms” collect customer requests and then allocate work through their algorithms. They can mobilise an ultra-flexible workforce instantly. They embody a future form of work, reconfigured on the one hand by digital innovations and, on the other, by individuals working outside wage-labour, the collective framework of the company and its hierarchies, by choice or by constraint.
5,6 percent of Europeans have been platform workers
Conducted in spring and autumn 2021, a major study by the European Trade Union Institute provides an estimate of the magnitude of this economy in 14 EU countries. The survey, which was sent to more than 36,000 participants, found that 5.6 percent had worked through a digital platform in the twelve months preceding the survey, including 1.6 percent who worked more than 20 hours a week or who earned more than 50 percent of their income from such platforms. “This is a growing economy, frequently renewing its workforce,” says Agnieszka Piasna, co-author of the study.
This is a figure that should be included in the broader category of “internet work”. According to estimates by the European Trade Union Institute, 11.7 percent of Europeans use websites or apps to find clients or engage in self-employed labour. Their status may share some commonalities with platform workers, without strictly meeting all the criteria, such as online payments, customer ratings and algorithmic management. In any case, both categories operate in specific fields: microwork (answering surveys, transcriptions, etc.), qualified work that can be done remotely (computer science, graphic design, etc.), passenger transport, delivery, but also personal services (cleaning, cosmetics, childcare, etc.).
Methods that are gaining other sectors of the economy
“There are between 100 and 200 platforms in Belgium, many of them in home services, private lessons, babysitting, personal care or pet care,” says Martin Willems, head of United Freelancers, a division of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions, which wants to reach out to all these “independent workers without staff” or “self-employed workers”. This is a far from simple task when they work from home. “We don’t know how to measure the phenomenon at all, let alone talk to them or try to reach them. What worries us is that this reality is extremely difficult to grasp,” he adds.
The methods of platforms are also spreading to the traditional economy, as the European Trade Union Institute survey reveals. “Some conventional companies, such as supermarket chains or postal services, organise their delivery services in a way that is essentially the same or very similar to that of a labour platform such as Uber: the order is communicated by the application, and there is competition between workers, without an employment contract,” explains Agnieszka Piasna.
Fueled by precarity
Platforms thrive on precarity. In France, as of 1 January 2022, nearly 24 percent of VTC and delivery drivers live in neighbourhoods of priority concern to local authorities, as revealed by COMPAS in a study published in December 2022.
The European Trade Union Institute discovered the same situation when comparing local labour markets and how often the internet was used for work: “in areas with high unemployment and low quality, temporary or part-time jobs, the use of Internet work increases”.
The pandemic also seems to have boosted this economy. According to a study submitted to the European Commission, more than a third of platform workers attribute their use of this form of work to this specific context. In Slovenia in November 2020, the meal delivery platform Ehrana, which has since been taken over by the Spanish company Glovo, saw a 300 percent increase in turnover. In Belgium, “there are lots of people who have lost their jobs and signed up as delivery drivers”, says Martin Willems. This influx has unbalanced supply and demand for a while. “Those who had started before Covid said that their average income had fallen, because the number of delivery workers had increased faster than the number of orders,” adds the Belgian trade unionist.
The status of platforms: no harmony between Member States
In an effort to regulate this new economy, several states have decided to react. In 2019, reports the French Senate, Portugal introduced regulations for “VTC operators”, allowing drivers “in principle to be protected by national labour laws and social protection.” In August 2021, Spain decided to apply a presumption of salaried status for bike delivery drivers, causing Deliveroo to leave the country, while Uber Eats “chose to subcontract by hiring delivery drivers via intermediary companies”, according to the same report. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, opt for third-party status, which gives them certain social rights, but not all. In Belgium, “riders” have been working since 2017 under the status of “P2P” (as in peer-to-peer): “As they are neither employees nor self-employed, they do not even have social security”, says Martin Willems.
For the European Commission, there is no doubt that there are many “false self-employed” among platform workers, leading to inequalities in access to rights. According to its estimates, 55 percent of platform workers earn less than the minimum hourly wage applicable in their country. The EU executive tabled a proposal for a directive to harmonise and improve their working conditions in the EU in December 2021. It remains to be agreed upon by the Member States, which are extremely divided on this issue: a year after the text was tabled, the Czech Presidency of the Union, which ended last December, failed to reach an agreement in the Council of the European Union.
One of the major challenges for the European text concerns the establishment of a “presumption of salaried status”. The European Commission’s proposal suggests a principle of at least two criteria to be met, relating, for example, to the close supervision of the work, or remuneration for the employee. In its resolution adopted on 2 February 2023 amending the text, the European Parliament prefers to leave it to national authorities to make an “objective assessment”, while listing “by way of indication” the signs of waged employment.
“The more criteria there are, the more likely it is that workers will be taken out of the requalification process,” warns Barbara Gomes, a lecturer in private law and member of the CGT’s Collective of Economically Dependent Workers, a French trade union. “If we let these platforms to themselves, there is a risk that other sectors will be contaminated by bogus self-employment,” she adds, pointing to similar trends in the personal services sector and attempts to uberise the temporary work sector.
Freelancing in vogue
In the field of business services, the emergence of “B2B” platforms that act as intermediaries between offers and requests for services is also stimulating the growth of self-employment. Freelancing is becoming more popular thanks to American platforms such as Upwork and the French company Malt, through which it is possible to obtain assignments in many fields: marketing, translation, web development, graphic design, etc. Alongside these generalist sites, many specialised intermediaries are also flourishing.
“The freelancing platforms first positioned themselves in the IT sector to meet the demand of very small businesses, which were not being canvassed by digital services companies. Large conglomerates have also shown interest in these platforms. They cover increasingly broad domains, such as human resources, accounting and law. The simplicity of their technology has attracted freelancers and newcomers to the labour market looking for visibility,” explains Tristan d’Avezac, founder of the firm Territoires humains, who contributed to a study of these platforms for the French Ministry of Labour’s statistical research institute, Dares.
White-collar workers versus ratings
Highly qualified workers in consulting or IT take advantage of this to set up their own businesses. “These are former employees who capitalise on their network to do business without the margins taken by their employer,” adds the study’s co-author, Odile Chagny, an economist at the Institute for Economic and Social Research and co-founder of the Sharers & Workers network.
While some white-collar workers seize the opportunity of self-employment to regain power and autonomy, the intermediation of these platforms can lead to disillusionment. Like blue-collar workers, freelancers find themselves exposed to algorithmic management and the diktat of ratings: a slow response to a request or a poor rating can reduce their visibility and cause a sudden drop in the number of orders… Profiles with little experience, such as young people who use these sites to get their first assignments, can find themselves in a difficult position. “There is a very strong imbalance between these workers and the client, who are free to leave assessments of workers on the platform and always have the last word,” says Odile Chagny.
Consequences for careers
After many companies have extended the domain of telework during and after the pandemic, are they now tempted to outsource these functions to freelancers? The risk is certainly there, especially when employees denied access to telework may be tempted to switch to freelancing. “The platformisation of work is clearly linked to the issue of remote work,” say the authors of a study published by the Bruegel think tank on the inequalities caused by digitalisation.
In addition to contributing to the fragmentation of work groups, platformisation can hinder the professional development of the self-employed by limiting them to certain tasks. The risk is particularly present in the case of ultra-fragmented tasks, which are characteristic of “micro-work”. “When a company outsources its activity, developing skills also ends up in the hands of the worker”, notes Odile Chagny. Unlike an employee who would benefit from a promotion in his company, it is up to freelancers to find sufficiently challenging assignments or to train themselves in order to increase their rates…