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Give app-based workers fair rights urgently, global unions tell governments

news 06 Jul 2021

Gig-economy workers are treated abysmally as app-based employers use underhanded definitions and loopholes in the law to duck their responsibilities. The platform economy is a challenge to the working conditions and labour rights of all workers.

Global union federations are demanding that governments around the world close these loopholes and insist that app- and technology-based companies meet their obligations on worker rights.

A new statement from global union federations highlights a huge range of deficiencies in the way some workers are treated. These range from unacceptable pay and conditions to limitations on human rights and health and safety neglect.

The set of demands specifically looks at how distortions in the interpretation of employment law are affecting people in the platform economy.  Many companies which provide services such as taxis, food delivery, cleaning and freight argue that the people who do the work are self-employed. Misclassification of workers employment status allows these companies to avoid tax and other costs compared with traditional competitors. Estimates of labour cost savings range from €6,000 per worker per year in Spain to US$24,000 in California.

“But it is the people who work for these companies who suffer,” said Stephen Cotton, ITF General Secretary. “They are seduced by the idea they can work more flexibly in exchange for giving up basic rights. The idea is flawed, it’s false logic. Work can be both flexible and sustain human rights, and often it is companies who do things right that are the most commercially successful.”

The ITF today also welcomed the declaration of the G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Declaration released on June 23, which acknowledges the fundamental role of social dialogue and an international approach to the regulation of the gig-economy. In particular, the admission for the need for clarity on the employment status of platform workers and avoidance of their misclassification and commitment for concerted action:

“In order to help to fully harness the potential of new technologies and protect and improve the working conditions of workers affected, we will work towards ensuring that our regulatory frameworks are adapted to new forms of work. A particular challenge remains the correct classification of the employment status of many people working through platforms, as well as the transparency, privacy, fairness and accountability of algorithmic management and monitoring. We agree on a set of G20 Policy Options to enhance regulatory frameworks for remote working arrangements and work through digital platforms to be developed and implemented in cooperation with Social Partners.”

Many of the points raised in the declaration on fair wages, occupational safety and health, algorithmic transparency, termination processes, surveillance and monitoring and control of data have been long-standing issues that trade unions have argued governments need to address. While welcoming the declaration, we must acknowledge that the certification of labour control apps and the testing of software for discriminatory effects were not considered. 

The concept of control is key

The law is clear. If a company exerts control over people, then they should treat those people as employees and meet widely accepted minimum worker rights. Most of these companies claim their workers are self-employed yet blatantly use unscrupulous forms of control.

For example:

  • Conditions are often imposed by the app and its terms of service on types of vehicle or equipment used, the sequencing of tasks, the access to customers.
  • Many use their app to continuously monitor location data, working time and speed.
  • Accepted and declined tasks, user comments and ratings are used to direct work.
  • The apps use incentives including customer ratings, temporary blocks on the use of the app, demand-related pay and pricing, and bonuses for rapid task completion.

“By masking their true relationship with employees, these companies are gaining an unfair advantage, and causing real and immediate suffering. Both the EU and the OECD have looked at this issue and understand the implications. Yet they have been glacially slow to act. Platform workers need their rights protected right now,” said Cotton.

Foodora and Just Eat in Europe have proven that giving workers fair pay and conditions need not stifle a new economy business, the report says. They both employ people in a straightforward way and give them their basic rights. But sadly, these companies are the exception.

This year the European Union is consulting on and considering the regulation of platforms, as well as many other governments internationally. Governments need to intervene now to insist that app services stop using weasel words and start treating their people fairly.

As global unions representing tens of millions of workers internationally, we call on governments to consider the issues pervasive in the gig-economy, and adopt our ten key policy demands for better working conditions in the sector.