Digital platforms through which clients find workers/contractors for a variety of tasks and jobs, both skilled and unskilled, whether provided at a specific location (cleaning, renovation, childcare) or online (graphic design, text writing) have become a permanent part of the service and labour market.
Experts from Italy, Germany, Spain, Estonia, Sweden and Poland shared their thoughts on the opportunities and challenges involved at the final conference of the Don’t GIG Up Never! project
Małgorzata Koziarek of the Institute of Public Affairs, Poland highlighted features observed in digital platform business models which are potentially beneficial for workers. One of them is a margin charged by the platform, defined as a percentage on workers (contractors) remuneration, which directly links platform earnings with the ones of the worker. The more worker earns, so does the platform, the limit being the customer's willingness to pay the price. This model is used, for example, by Reachablogger, a platform that matches influencers (publishers) with advertisers, encouraging the former to compete on quality rather than price. Another feature that serves to secure the interests of influencers, but also of clients, is the Escrow account. It is used by the platform to deposit the money which the client has paid upfront for the requested service. Once the service has been completed by the influencer and approved by the client, the platform transfers due remuneration to the former. Consequently, the platform's role is not limited to matching the parties (i.e. contractor with a client), as it must also act as an arbitrator in the event of disputes between the two parties, e.g. regarding the quality of the work performed. While using such a mechanism poses a greater challenge in the case of services carried out at physical locations, still it is applied for instance on the Fixly.pl platform that acts as an intermediary in renovation services, among others. It introduced the Escrow account to meet the needs of the customers who prefer non-cash settlements.
The challenges involved in protecting the rights of workers (contractors) as well as guaranteeing quality services to clients were highlighted by Sabina Trankmann of Tartu University. She gave the example of a platform offering caregiving services in Estonia, which on its website persuades clients that they are going to be matched with professionally trained caregivers, while in reality the caregivers who cooperate with the platform receive only a few hours of online training. In general, given the randomness inherent in the platform model, clients' expectations may prove to be excessive. In this situation, the question arises as to who is to be responsible for the result (the quality of the work done), as well as, a more general questions about the roles and the scope of responsibilities of the parties in the platform – worker/contractor relationship. Since only by defining these roles can we address the question of respecting workers' rights. A practice shows, the roles can be defined in different ways. In Spain, as described by Luis Pérez Capitán of UGT, platforms providing cleaning or care services are considered similar to platforms offering delivery services: a court in Barcelona ruled that it is the platform offering cleaning services that is the employer for the cleaners, not the families who have them clean their houses. FGB's Sofia Gualandi, on the other hand, reported that in Italy, families using the services of caregivers who cooperate with the Cigogne platform act as employers.
Odile Chagny of IRES highlighted the activities of professional intermediaries in France who use digital platforms to manage and structure services performed by freelancers for their clients, including large corporate players. These intermediaries focus on protecting clients who, by working with freelancers, avoid the risks associated with hiring employees. At the same time, many freelancers prefer to operate outside organisational structures, and some are self-organising to protect their rights and interests. There are also trade unions of the self-employed emerging. The question remains whether traditional trade unions, some of which are considering changing their statutes to be able to organise freelance workers, will be capable of responding effectively to the new trends and needs of platform workers.
It is an important question because the types of platforms discussed are mainly based on the work of the self-employed. However, these individuals cannot have their rights guaranteed under collective agreements, which limits the type of action that trade unions can take on their behalf, as discussed by both German FGB expert Tomas Haipeter and Sofia Gualandi. Nevertheless, Italian artists affiliated to the DocServizi digital platform do enjoy the benefits of a collective agreement, as the platform has the status of a labour cooperative. The speakers also emphasized the weaker protection of self-employed workers under the social security system.
Besides challenges, various measures that can foster better protection of the rights and interests of platform workers were mentioned. In a situation such as in Sweden - where platforms do not consider themselves employers, nor are they of interest to employers' organisations, and where the main source of regulations for workers is collective agreements - a strategy of publicising infamous practices in the media, as discussed by FGB expert Sirin Celik, has proved very effective. Workplace crime centres operating across the country could also be used to combat abuses in platform work. Self-regulation of the sector could provide another opportunity to improve the current platform practices. In Germany, some platforms have adopted an ethical code of conduct and a grievance office has been set up with employee and union representatives involvement to deal with irregularities concerning individual contracts. The country is also discussing bringing self-employed workers under the social security system with lower contributions, which currently artists can benefit from. Finally, the expected EU directive may be considered an opportunity to regulate platform work in Europe to the benefit of platform workers.
The conference was organised by Foundation Giacomo Brodolini and UIL, on behalf of which it was opened by Tiziana Bocchi. Expert contributions on challenges and opportunities were preceded by a summary of Don’t GIG Up Never project activities by Barbara de Micheli of FGB and a presentation of project results by an FGB expert Michele Faioli of Catholic University of Saint Cross in Rome. The concluding remarks were presented by Romolo de Camillis, director general for employment and international relations in the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy.
The conference recording is available HERE – contributions of Michele Faioli and of national experts are in English [28:30 - 1:48:30], the other ones – in Italian.
The event was part of Don’t GIG Up. Never! co-financed by the European Union. The project has been implemented by an international partnership including the Institute of Public Affairs.