There's a new frontier for the Labour movement: 'platform capitalism'. Remaining in the EU can tame it.
Earlier this month, the EU’s candidate for the Jobs portfolio in the Commission was grilled on the future of work.
The person who gets it will have a big job on their hands. In past few decades, the threat for many workers and their rights has been outsourcing. In a world of minimal regulations on trade and capital flows, transnational corporations have used all existing loopholes to maximise their profits through cutting costs in their supply chains, with the excuse of global competition.
Cutting costs more often than not actually means cutting corners on wages, benefits, union rights and health and safety rules, increasing working time and stress in the workplace. In Capitalism 1.0 you could simply do this by relocating away from Europe’s traditional industrial heartlands.
More recently workers have been facing an additional, more insidious threat. One that does not necessarily involve direct redundancies or relocations, but rather has led to the complete overhaul of the definition of work and the contractual relationships that shape it.
Some employers have long dreamed that they could throw away UK and EU labour regulations and their costly implications. The internet has made it possible without even changing location: platforms such as Amazon, Deliveroo or Uber are about making informal jobs mainstream, bypassing hundreds of years of labour struggles to take us back to day labour.
Rules for another age
The gap has widened between labour regulations and the reality of work because most of the rules applicable today were defined at a time when the internet did not exist and the unchallenged standard of work was the permanent employment contract. Self-employed workers now represent 15% of the entire work-force in the UK, 1.5 million people more than at the start of the 21st century and counting.
Many analogue-era businesses have taken part in this trend – requalifying the employment status of workers to dodge their responsibilities as employers. But the digital economy is the real driving force behind it. One in ten working-age adults in the UK work via gig economy platforms at least once a week. That’s twice as many compared to three years ago. Overall, 7.5 million people in the country have undertaken ‘platform’ work at some point in their lives.
Internet platforms are based on a fundamental myth: workers work for clients and not the platform. Many different models exist in the gig-economy, but all have the same principle at their core: an ambition to pay as little as possible for workers and their rights, and to charge for the services they provide at the cheapest cost to the customer. Self-employed or contractor work status have been massively abused to that effect.
Fortunately just as generations of casual workers have fought for their rights in traditional sectors, the tide is turning against these attempts to destroy labour rights for platform workers.
Amazon “fulfilment” workers held the first ever global gig-economy strike on 15 July 2019 to coincide with the company’s “Prime Day”, a major sale event. This follows from months of actions at local level in the US, and is just the start of bigger struggles to come. Last month, Amazon workers made history once more when thousands marched in Seattle – where the company’s headquarters are located – against Amazon’s environmental track record, giving us hope not just for people, but for the planet too.
This is made even more remarkable by the fact that industrial action requires organisation, and organisation is hindered by less formal employment structures. As with the zero-hour contracts-plagued fast-food sector, the gig-economy has lacked a strong union presence in the past. But this is changing fast thanks to the efforts of organisers on the ground.
In the UK, the GMB union has made platform workers a priority campaign, raising awareness, both in the media and in court, against bogus self-employment and the exploitation of workers. And trade unions across Europe have already scored major successes.
A collective agreement was signed in Italy in May 2018 in the food-delivery sector, granting the minimum wage for drivers, as well as accident and sickness insurance and compensation for overtime, holidays, bad weather and bicycle maintenance.
Another landmark collective agreement was signed in Denmark last year, recognising workers of a cleaning services platform as employees once they complete 100 hours of work. Closer to home, the February 2019 deal between Hermes and the GMB, which notably granted drivers guaranteed minimum wages and holiday pay, is a clear signal that workers’ rights abuses will become a thing of the past.
In this endeavour the GMB and the whole British labour movement can count on a strong supporter: the European Union.
A new European Commission will shortly be installed and pending formal approval by the European Parliament, former Minister of Labour and Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party member Nicolas Schmit will become Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner.
A close trade union ally, Schmit has made platform workers one of his top priority for the five years to come. He will not be alone in Brussels pushing for an ambitious agenda in this respect: improving the labour conditions of platform workers is actually one of the official instruction he has received from European Commission President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen.
The EU’s ongoing agenda to tackle abuse in the gig-economy is far reaching. Just before the May 2019 European elections, a directive was adopted to guarantee transparent and predictable working conditions, establishing new minimum standards to ensure that all workers, including those on atypical contracts, benefit from more predictability and clarity as regards their working conditions. This came largely as a result of trade union campaigning, demonstrating that Brussels does listen. A proposal was also recently tabled before EU labour ministers to improve access to social protection for workers and the self-employed.
This agenda has wind in its sails, not least since California – the home-State of the Silicon valley – passed a law last month to requalify platform workers as employees when it is clear that they are not free from the company’s control. This is inspiration not just for European trade unions but for the EU as well.
Progress and risks
And last week MEPs adopted a resolution calling for a coordinated EU initiative to ensure platforms workers have access to social protection, social and labour rights, and collective agreement coverage regardless of their employment status.
The EU is also looking closely at another key feature of internet platforms: tax, and the way they avoid paying it. From resolute anti-trust and competition fines to proposals for a “google tax” and closing down tax heavens, the EU is leading the fight against platform abuses, at a scale that is simply inaccessible to the UK government, should it be willing to engage in this.
We know for a fact that the current government isn’t. Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber’s allies are in Cabinet, not in the Berlaymont. A Johnson Brexit would lead to a reduction in rights for all, rather than lifting platform workers’ up to the level of other employees.
So we have a choice to make: more rights for all workers if we remain in the EU, or losing our current rights under a Trumpian Tory Brexit.
Jude Kirton-Darling is a Labour MEP.
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