Platform Workers Explain How New EU Rules Would Impact Millions of Jobs
After months of discussion, the European Council is still struggling to land an agreement on the Platform Work Directive (PWD). Although EU Member States hold very different positions, the aim remains to agree on a general approach by mid-June. However, this impasse shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the proposed rules risk holding back innovative and successful business models, as well as impacting the livelihoods of millions of European platform workers.
What is at stake?
Notwithstanding the European Commission’s overall aim to improve the working conditions of platform workers, in its current form, the PWD could lead to the reclassification of hundreds of thousands of independent contractors. They would suddenly become employees, something that the vast majority of them repeatedly said is against their wishes.
According to the Commission, there are currently some 28 million platform workers in the EU, and this number is expected to increase to at least 43 million by 2025. These workers now enjoy flexible working conditions, benefit from the possibility to work with multiple platforms, and can take on side work as they please.
However, if reclassified as employees under the PWD, many of those work opportunities will be lost. The reason is simple: forcing people into employment means that they will have to be assigned to shifts and will be required to meet performance targets, rather than being able to choose their own work parameters. Such rigid regulation would hamper successful business models that meet the needs of both platform workers and consumers.
What has still not been fully understood, is that reclassifying freelancers as employees doesn’t necessarily improve their working conditions. On the contrary, they would lose many of the benefits they currently enjoy. For example, a potential reclassification would prevent platform workers from choosing when, where, and for which platform they want to work. Employment also involves exclusivity and so would remove platform workers’ ability to maximise their earnings by working for multiple competing platforms at the same time.
The opinion of platform workers
Policy makers sometimes end up debating grand schemes and principles, but then forget those who are really at the core of the discussion. The harsh reality is that hundreds of thousands of platform workers could lose their jobs because of the PWD. If forced to work at fixed hours, up to 250,000 of today’s couriers would lose the opportunity to deliver food for example. Some would be forced to stop working for multiple platforms, seeing a significant drop in their earnings. Others would have to choose between working for one platform and the side jobs they carry out. Employed platform workers would also earn less than self-employed platform workers. Drivers, for example, would have earnings close to the minimum wage, as opposed to their current revenues, which are consistently higher than the local minimum wage.
So, let’s listen to platform workers, and hear what they think about the EU directive.
- “What attracts you to platform work?”
Gustavo, a 32-year-old courier from Madrid, tells us what he appreciates most about his job. “It is the flexibility, the ability to manage my own time. And having the possibility to maximise my earnings by taking advantage of peaks in demand for my services. The fact that you can earn much more than as an employee, as well as having the possibility to easily balance this work with other work endeavours, or family time and studies.”
“This type of job is attractive to a lot of people because of the freedom it provides. A freedom that traditional work doesn’t give you. If you are an employee, a specific timetable, calendar, and fixed wages are imposed on you,” he adds. Tse-Hsine, a 70-year-old driver from Belgium, agrees on the value of independence. “If I want to connect or disconnect, I can do that at any time.”
These are of course just some first-hand experiences, but they are consistent with the findings of broader surveys that have been carried out, which demonstrate that platform workers value the flexibility and enhanced revenues that self-employment provides. A study by Copenhagen Economics covering more than 16,000 self-employed couriers found that for 70% flexibility is the main reason for choosing this work.
- “Would you exchange the benefits of platform work for employee status?”
Tse-Hsine: “No way. I would not sacrifice my flexibility to become an employee. I’ve been an employee before and don’t want to go back that.” In his opinion, working as a freelancer is better than being employed because of the autonomy. And working as an independent allows him to increase income depending on his needs. Being self-employed gives platform workers the freedom to choose when and where to work, but also to adapt the working rhythm to their personal life, Tse-Hsine adds.
To the same question, Gustavo, the Spanish rider replies: “I would not do it , mainly for two reasons. First of all, I would lose all this flexibility that I now have. And secondly, on a practical level, as it happened here in Spain , it is clear that this [reclassify-as-employee] policy just does not work in practice.”
According to Gustavo, the Spanish situation is indicative of the detrimental impact the PWD could have on platform work across the EU. Spain’s riders law entered into force in August 2021, establishing a labour presumption that reclassifies food-delivery riders as employees instead of independent contractors. The consequences have been significant, with thousands of couriers losing access to work, overall leaving the Spanish delivery sector and all those that worked in it worse off.
- “What should the EU directive focus on to really improve things for you?”
Gustavo thinks the PWD should aim at reinforcing the rights of platform workers. For instance, by giving more importance and weight to the collective negotiating bodies of platform workers. He suggests the PWD should also provide more legal certainty to the sector as a whole, by clearly defining what it means to be a self-employed worker. This definition should not be based on old jurisprudence (as was the case in Spain) in his view, but rather on recent developments and case law, taking into account how technology and work have evolved in recent years.
According to Tse-Hsine, it is fundamental that the EU directive avoids introducing any type of reclassification of self-employed workers as employees. Retaining the flexibility and autonomy to work whenever he wants cannot be substituted by any additional protections that employees might have, he stresses.
The way forward
After speaking to just a few self-employed workers, it already becomes clear that the opportunities platforms provide are greatly valued. The Commission has set ambitious digital targets for Europe, striving to increasingly digitise services for EU companies and consumers alike. With the PWD, however, the Commission seems to be going against those very goals.
While improvements can be made to any working environment, and that definitely includes novel platform-based models, platform workers themselves simply don’t want the EU to change the very fundamentals of the model. They don’t see the self-employed status as a problem that needs to be addressed by the EU. If anything, it is this autonomy that attracts so many Europeans to platform work.
Imposing old ideas of work on an economy that is in a constant state of innovation does not provide future-proof solutions. If the European institutions really want to protect and enhance the working conditions of platform workers, they should engage in a more serious and transparent dialogue with those workers.
Instead of reclassifying large groups of people based on a handful of broad criteria, Europe should strive to create a flexible legislative framework that both protects workers and ensures new business models can thrive in Europe.