Slave-drivers! Hundreds of cyclists who deliver for Uber Eats, Glovo, and Deliveroo protest in Madrid and inform people about their situation, November, 2018. Lito Lizana/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Platform workers are getting organised, and not always through a trade union. Recent research from the European Trade Union Institute indicates that digital platforms, harbingers of increasing precarity in the labour market, have also become sites of creativity and experimentation in the labour movement.
The workplace is the traditional centre of trade union organising. The shared experience of working for the same employer, in the same office or factory, with the same clock ticking away the eight hours, has formed the foundation for collective organisation. However, for a significant part of the population, going to work today does not mean the same thing as it did 20, much less 50 years ago.
Online platform workers do not work directly for an employer. They deal with a digital intermediary, otherwise known as a ‘platform’, which receives requests from ‘clients’ for a particular job to be done and finds a ‘producer’ to do it. The work, ranging from small, low-skilled tasks, to more complex, high-skilled jobs, is performed on an on-demand basis and compensated as such. Platform workers are considered ‘independent contractors’; they have few employment rights and inadequate social protection. Unionising these workers is a fight in itself.
Challenging terrain for trade unions
The rise of the ‘platform economy’ has become a hot topic in labour research. And no wonder – the Fairwork Foundation estimates there are now over seven million digital platform workers across the world. Admittedly, it is difficult to track the extent of this economy and there exist only limited cross-national data based on surveys, which have generally revealed that the majority perform this kind of work on an irregular basis and to supplement another income.
However, in light of the current trend towards increasing deregulation and precarity in the labour market, this ‘new’ economy is an important area of action for the trade union movement.
Due to the multiple challenges of geographic dispersal, ambiguous employment statuses and open hostility from the platforms themselves, a trade union presence is generally lacking in these digital enterprises. A big priority for unions is therefore to integrate platform workers into collective bargaining regimes.
The collective agreement reached in Denmark in July 2018 between an online platform that provides cleaning services, Hilfr.dk, and the trade union 3F was the world’s first in the platform economy and a landmark achievement. For a one-year trial period, the platform’s 450 ‘freelance’ workers will be reclassified as ‘employees’ after completing 100 hours of work, providing them with higher wages and social protection.
Other established trade unions have also been active across Europe, setting up works councils in platforms and websites where workers can evaluate the companies they provide services to. However, it is arguably newer, more grassroots forms of labour organisation that have been the most active in this burgeoning sphere. In a paper titled ‘Will trade unions survive in the platform economy?’, ETUI researcher Kurt Vandaele has identified some trends in western European countries that could point the way towards new strategies and solutions.
The many paths to collective representation
First off, grassroots, independent unions are becoming more prominent, particularly in the on-demand transport and food sectors of the platform economy. A key example here is the relatively new Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which represents primarily precarious workers and has been a key organiser of Deliveroo courier actions in London.
The union has succeeded in mounting high-profile campaigns that attracted media attention through creative demonstrations and direct targeting of consumers. Elsewhere, the Freie Arbeiterinnen-und Arbeiter-Union (FAU) in Berlin, also working with food couriers, founded the International Labour Confederation in 2018, along with other militant unions across the world. These unions tend to prioritise their relationship with their members by engaging them directly in mobilisation campaigns.
Another phenomenon has been the emergence of city-based guilds set up by groups of self-organised, on-demand workers. Again, the food delivery platform sector is a good place to find a plethora of examples, with bike couriers launching such associations in France, Germany and Italy to drive (or cycle) forward their cause. They are often supported by both longstanding and independent unions, who offer them legal and logistics advice and other resources.
In one exemplary initiative, the Riders Union Bologna signed a charter with the three main Italian trade union confederations, the city council and the local delivery platform Sgnam e MyMenu to establish a framework of minimum standards for platform workers in the city.
Labour mutuals for self-employed workers represent another alternative means of representation in this precarious economy. The Societé Mutuelle d’Artistes (SMart), established in Belgium in 1998, is one of the leading examples. Providing services and social protection to freelance creative professionals, SMart has now spread its activities to several other European countries. These organisations, sometimes considered ‘quasi unions’, have however attracted some criticism from established unions for seeking legitimacy from employer organisations, and therefore encroaching upon traditional union territory. These organisations, sometimes considered ‘quasi unions’, have however attracted some criticism from established unions for seeking legitimacy from employer organisations, and therefore encroaching upon traditional union territory.
Finally, there are ‘platform cooperatives’, which aim to offer an alternative, democratically-run form of enterprise to workers. This is still a nascent sphere, but the Internet of Ownership provides a global directory of existing initiatives. In contrast to the grassroots unions and guilds, these cooperatives are not just focused on ‘offline’ workers, who can more easily organise themselves due to greater physical contact and workplace bargaining power. They may instead be one way for the dispersed, online workers to put an end to their exploitation.
Conflict or cooperation: what does the future hold?
Vandaele’s research indicates that while these new types of worker organisation are particularly dynamic in the platform economy, compared to their more traditional union counterparts, the different approaches do not need to be mutually exclusive.
Newer, grassroots organisations can learn from more established unions about collective bargaining and social dialogue, while the latter can take inspiration from the mobilisation capacity of the former. As so many platform workers are students or young people, labour activity in this economy also represents an opportunity for unions to attract a new generation of members.
Such initiatives will be, and indeed are, fraught with obstacles like conflicting interests and incompatible approaches. The ETUI study reveals that what the platform economy highlights most is a clear fragmentation developing between varied forms of labour activism. Much will depend on future strategies and dynamics. However, in a context of declining trade union density across Europe, a little bit of zest and zeal in the labour movement isn’t a bad thing.