The Gig Economy: flexible freedom or wage slavery?

In partnership with The European Commission
The Gig Economy: flexible freedom or wage slavery?
Copyright euronews
Copyright euronews
By Naomi LloydFanny Gauret with ILO, EU Commission
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As Spain passes a law classing food delivery riders as employees with full social benefits - we ask should there be EU-wide legislation? And we meet the Barcelona riders - who aren’t all happy.

If you’ve ever used an app to order a late-night food delivery or to book a plumber then you’ve most likely tapped into the platform economy. It’s one of the most important new transformations in the world of work. And right now the big debate in Europe is over working conditions.

Digital platform work, also known as the gig economy, has increased five-fold in the last decade.

It is where individuals provide specific services organised through a digital platform that connects them with clients.

This can be a location-based app - allocating jobs such as food delivery, taxi or plumbing services, or web-based platforms - outsourcing work like translation or graphic design.

The platforms are creating new job opportunities. However, there are challenges to ensure good working conditions and that the algorithms treat workers fairly.

How has the 'gig economy' or 'platform work' grown over the last decade?

Platform Working: to regulate or not to regulate?

This new model of platform working has left governments unsure how to regulate it. Spain is the first EU country to pass a law classing food delivery riders as employees with social protections.

Fanny Gauret went to meet some food delivery riders in Barcelona to get their views.

Fanny met two young delivery men who know the streets of Barcelona by heart, one on a scooter, the other on a bicycle, carrying food or parcels. Both are self-employed workers, and their situation is set to change in the coming months.

As a new law is presented to the Council of Ministers will classify all riders working for delivery platforms as employees. They will access rights like unemployment benefits, vacation or sick leave. For this young South American rider, who wants to remain anonymous, it is a relief.

"What the government proposes to these companies is that they give us a minimum wage, sick leave, life insurance, a vehicle, to be able to work properly," the anonymous, self-employed rider explains. "Because we spend up to 12 hours a day working, to receive sometimes less than the minimum wage."

This young man is paid by delivery, according to the prices set by the platform. As he can’t afford a motorbike, he works on a bicycle, which he says, is a big disadvantage.

"I have never made €1000 a month. By bicycle, it is very difficult to do it. Because you have to work long hours, it is exhausting. If you don't connect to the platform, if you do something wrong, if you cancel many orders, they just cancel your account."

A minimum wage, work accident insurance, or control of profile cancellations, that’s what many riders hope for with this law.

"Freedom and flexibility"

In Spain, there are already some delivery platforms that use the wage model. But Jordi Mateo, who works 40 to 50 hours a week, prefers to remain independent:

"Looking at what the competitor companies are doing with the employees, I think that I will have a contract of 15 or 20 hours, which will be very prejudicial to, on the one hand, the freedom and flexibility that I have today, and my income, which is going to drop drastically," says Mateo.

Working on a scooter for several platforms, he is satisfied with earning more than the Spanish minimum wage, around € 1,100 gross per month. Although he would welcome improvements, such as being able to set his own prices.

"What most of the self-employed believe is that we need reinforcement in our protections, but we do not have to go through a contract, which our experience tells us, will make us precarious and not protect us - as the government would have us believe," insists Mateo.

This complex situation reflects the great diversity in the profiles of people who use digital platforms to find clients, in sectors such as transport, home services, and online services.

Opening up to the job market

Laura is a graphic designer. After losing her job due to the health crisis, she turned to a platform that connects her directly to a wide variety of clients.

"You sign up to the platform, you create your profile, you put your rate, your hours, your availability," Laura Cardenas Corrales outlines. "For me, the change is positive because it gives me the freedom to dedicate the hours that I want to dedicate and do the projects that I really like. I believe that platforms like this help you open up to the job market."

While more social protection is needed for some of these workers, the model of flexible working schedule and hours is championed by others, including the digital platforms which defend their model. According to the International Labor Organization, they generate just under 4 billion euros of annual income in Europe.

But how can compliance with labour laws and job quality be ensured? With the pandemic and the boom in home deliveries, discussions have intensified.

The view from Brussels

The European Commission has launched a consultation to improve the protection of workers on digital platforms, inviting trade unions and employers' organisations to find agreement. If they can’t, the Commission will draw up legislation by the end of 2021.

"This very promising sector has a lot of good dimensions such as a better work-life balance for people, more flexibility, access to the labour market for people who are sometimes in very difficult circumstances" explains Joost Korte, the EU Commission's Director-General for Employment.

"But it needs to be a sustainable model on which it is based. Otherwise what will happen is that we would come to different solutions in different member states, which will be negative in the context of the single market," he adds.

For more on this, Naomi Lloyd spoke with a Senior Economist at the International Labour Organisation -the United Nations agency that sets international labour standards.

Naomi Lloyd - Euronews

"Let’s start with the European Commission’s consultation - is this something you welcome?"

Uma Rani - Senior Economist, ILO

"We have to remember that digital labour platforms work across borders, so EU legislative framework, which will come out by the end of this year, would be a very good step forward in improving the lives and the working conditions of the workers and the platforms."

Naomi Lloyd - Euronews

We saw there the rider in Fanny’s report that says he is penalised by the algorithms if he turns down any jobs - is this something you’ve come across much?

Uma Rani - Senior Economist, ILO

This is the experience of many workers on these platforms. The platforms are actually using algorithmic management practices in allocating the work and rewarding the work and monitoring the entire process of the work itself. If you start refusing work, if you are not able to keep up the speed, then it penalises you.

Naomi Lloyd - Euronews

But we saw there that not all riders actually want to be employees – many of them like the flexibility of working the hours they want.

Uma Rani - Senior Economist, ILO

I guess the reason why this particular rider wants to work for very long hours is because of the gamification process that these platforms have. So they have a lot of bonuses and incentives.

Then over a period of time, what happens is that the amount of work that you are receiving actually comes down, the pay you are getting comes down, and that's where the frustration comes in.

Naomi Lloyd - Euronews

But people in many industries choose to be self-employed, what’s the issue here with platform work?

Uma Rani - Senior Economist, ILO

The problem becomes when self-employed becomes disguised self-employment where you are an employee, but you're asked to become self-employed and you do not get any of the benefits. There are no regulations. So they are self-regulated and they decide what the status of the worker is, what the price of a ride or price of a task is, which is what becomes very problematic.

Journalist • Naomi Lloyd

Video editor • Nicolas Coquet

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