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In Europe, Platform Workers Are Winning Limited Protections

Above photo: Gig workers demonstrate outside near the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on November 8, 2023. Thierry Monasse / Getty Images.

Across Europe, platform workers have won a series of court cases ruling that they are employees, not self-employed.

Moves for new EU-wide legislation have faced serious resistance from lobbyists but now look set to deliver some new protections.

As the European Parliament heads toward fresh elections in June, there’s one unresolved file on the desk of Brussels’s politicians and technocrats. The European Union (EU) Platform Work Directive, an attempt to establish a unified set of labor standards for workers on digital platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, has turned out to be a thorny issue.

The EU’s various institutions have been banging heads over platform work regulation for years now, unable to bridge conflicting interests and ideologies. If passed, the Platform Work Directive would establish a whole set of new rights relating to algorithmic management. But the dividing line over the directive has centered on whether the EU should consider food-delivery couriers, private-hire drivers and other app-based, on-demand workers to be employees rather than independent contractors.

The stakes are high. Most platforms — almost all of which still register losses, despite investors’ growing demands for financial sustainability — see their business model under threat from reforms that could see their labor costs rising approximately 20–30 percent. The extra bill owes to benefits like sick leave, various tax implications, and the requirement to pay employees for waiting time at work. But for many platform workers hired as if they were self-employed, the cost they have long been paying in terms of poverty pay and job insecurity is itself untenable.

Amid this battle, one member of the European Parliament (MEP) has distinguished herself as a fighter for platform workers’ rights. Leïla Chaibi was among a new cohort of France Insoumise deputies elected in the last EU elections in 2019. Ahead of her bid for reelection this June, Chaibi has published a book whose French title translates as Pirate MEP: How I Infiltrated the European Machine. It gives insight into what it’s like for someone from an activist background to operate in Brussels — and how she has sought to take on the corporate lobby over platform work regulation.

“An Engine Of Depoliticization”

EU politics is often opaque to ordinary voters — and insofar as most Europeans are even aware of what the EU’s parliament has been getting up to in recent years, it’s probably in relation to scandal. The most prominent, known as “Qatargate,” highlighted the potential for relatively anonymous, politically unaccountable MEPs to be bought by the highest bidder, in this case the Qatari state. It could just as easily have been a corporation.

Chaibi is hardly naive about the trappings of Brussels life as an MEP. On top of their salaries — close to €7,000 a month — MEPs have cushy expense budgets for food, housing, and transport. That’s before the side jobs, which Left Group MEPs reject but many of their parliamentary colleagues do take up. In a place where money talks, MEPs are afforded a luxurious lifestyle.

That has been somewhat disconcerting for someone who had been a financially precarious activist before she entered the European Parliament, aged thirty-seven. Chaibi, formerly a squatter in an occupied building in Paris, explains how she learned her craft organizing masked protests over unpaid internships and “picnics” in supermarkets to draw attention to food poverty. How to apply this experience to the often elitist environment of EU politics?

Chaibi accepts that she has had to adapt to have any influence, for example in how she dresses. However, Pirate MEP gives the impression of a politician who is highly self-conscious about the risks of being sucked into “the bubble” — a world where your time is occupied by other people like you, with few barriers to losing all connection from the people you’re meant to represent.

There is not the same hostility between European Parliament political groups as in national parliaments, since MEPs face few external pressures and broad coalitions are needed to form a majority. Although this dynamic can be useful for Chaibi’s “The Left” group, which holds just 41 of the parliament’s 751 seats, she is wary of a politics where all politicians get along.

“I feel this cozy warmth invade me,” Chaibi writes. “These walls are an engine of depoliticization.”

Brussels is famous for its corporate lobbying, with seventy thousand lobbyists in a city with just over seven hundred elected politicians. Chaibi has no doubt that their influence is ubiquitous.

“[T]he presence of lobbyists [is] at all levels, on every floor of the Parliament, the Commission, the Council, [and they] whisper, visibly, in the ears of governments,” she writes. “We are, in fact, surrounded by lobbies.”

Part of the reason lobbyists garner influence is simply the workload of MEPs, who have to sign off on a very large number of laws and often have little time for preparation. If a lobby offers you talking points or even a written amendment, it may well be easier for MEPs and their teams to just play along. Chaibi tells a funny story: one day an MEP read out an amendment supporting the privatization of the American healthcare system, because a lobbyist had mixed up their Brussels and Washington files.

Chaibi decided early on that if she was going to shake up the Brussels machine, she’d have to do things differently, which meant bringing the people to the Parliament. Ironically, the European Parliament expenses bonanza has aided this activist approach. She discovered something known as Line 400, which gives MEPs a huge budget of €4,500 to spend on inventory.

“Some elected officials could even open a shop in their name,” she jests.

Chaibi’s team read the rules and realized the Line 400 budget could be reappropriated for organizing conferences. This allowed her to fund the “Transnational Alternatives to Uberization” forums, which have brought platform workers from Europe and beyond to Brussels to share perspectives and strategize. The fourth such conference is due this February 21–22.

I myself have been reporting on the Platform Work Directive for the last few years — and I can confirm that these forums have become a key organizing hub for the platform workers’ movement in Europe. They have established a network that has coordinated important activist interventions into the EU-wide debate, from blocking roads, to sending delegations of platform workers to meet EU Commissioners, to disrupting meetings hosted by the platform lobby, to having riders cycle from Brussels to Paris to highlight their demands.

We shouldn’t overstate this: the number of riders which have participated in these actions in total number in the hundreds, not the thousands. But at least it’s an attempt to breach the normal rhythms of EU politics by having a legislative debate that is not solely the preserve of the credentialed class — and instead one that precarious workers can actually engage with.

Is Emmanuel Macron “The Problem”?

Can feisty grassroots campaigning really compete with the raw power of economic and political elites in Brussels? The more than two-year-long saga over the Platform Work Directive suggests that is very difficult, at best.

In the EU’s byzantine structure, it is the unelected European Commission that initiates legislation, not MEPs themselves. The Commission’s draft proposal for the Platform Work Directive, published in December 2021, wasn’t great — it set the bar quite high for a gig worker to be considered an employee. For the platform workers’ movement, it was at least an opening. However, Pirate MEP reveals that it could have been so much better, if not for French president Emmanuel Macron making a late phone call to the upper echelons of the EU machine, demanding that the legal “presumption of employment” in the Commission’s text — considering platform hires as employees, not self-employed subcontractors — should be significantly watered down.

“[Macron] is Uber’s lobbyist,” Chaibi surmises. “The best, by far.”

This is a recurring theme of Pirate MEP: Macron as the mortal enemy of platform workers’ rights, an almost otherworldly presence in Brussels, pressuring MEPs and technocrats alike to bend to Uber’s will. Like all good stories, Macron as the pantomime villain has some element of truth.

There is no question that the Macron administration has been in the vanguard of a group of center-right and far-right governments in the EU that are totally committed to protecting “innovative” platforms from “dated” employment laws that, the argument goes, don’t reflect the modern reality of work in the digital age. In France, Macron has established a controversial system of arbitration between platforms and gig workers, which it promotes in EU settings as a form of alternative social protection to traditional employment rights.

Moreover, Macron was the highest-profile figure to be caught up in the “Uber Files” scandal (thousands of internal Uber documents were released, revealing rampant criminality). This revealed that in 2015, when he was economy minister in François Hollande’s soft-left government, Macron secretly coordinated with Uber to defend, in Hollande’s cabinet, the company’s illegal entry into the French market. Himself president since 2017, Macron has never swayed in his commitment to defending the platforms’ interests.

However, if Macron presented the only barrier to a Platform Work Directive that protects gig workers, that would be surmountable. There are still enough center-left governments on the council of the EU (the body that represent member states) to have outnumbered Macron and his closest allies — if they had joined forces. Yet in fact, the traditional parties of social democracy have been weak and divided.

First, Germany, ruled by a Social Democratic/Green/liberal coalition, has abstained for more than two years on the Platform Work Directive, refusing to take a position every time it has been up for debate. This has been crucial, because for a directive to gain the support of the Council, 55 percent of states (which must also represent 65 percent of the EU by population) are required. This population-share lock gives the France-Germany duo an effective veto, since these two countries alone make up 33.8 percent of the EU population.

Germany’s abstention has thus given Macron massive leverage over European platform work regulation. Berlin’s nonposition is also evidence of a problem identified by political theorist Christopher Bickerton. He has argued that “nation-states” have been transformed into “member-states”: through the Council, they are the dominant institution at the EU level, but they are also significantly less accountable to their own citizens, who are largely unaware of what they are getting up to in Brussels. It would be impossible for the German government to abstain on such an important legislative debate in the Bundestag, but the abstention policy at Brussels has gone almost entirely unnoticed by the German press and wider public.

Secondly, Belgium, whose coalition government is led by the Socialist Party, took over the EU’s rotating presidency in January, and has capitulated to French demands over the Platform Work Directive. This has dismantled the work of the previous Spanish presidency, led by that country’s labor minister Yolanda Díaz, who is leader of the left-wing Sumar coalition. In a Council vote on the much weaker Belgian text at the end of January, member states with center-left governments split. Spain was among those to vote against the new platform-friendly text, while some of the states that were previously allied with Díaz on the Council, like Portugal’s Socialist Party government, joined Belgium in voting in favor.

Pirate MEP is primarily written for a domestic audience, and so it’s understandable that Chaibi would focus on the responsibility of her own government, but it’s nonetheless an exaggeration to state, as she does, that “the problem is France.” A broader perspective must accept that European social democracy deserves its fair share of the blame.

Endgame

At the time of writing, the Platform Work Directive has still not been settled, but it is very much in its endgame, with some possibilities already ruled out.

First, it’s clear that the ambition of the European Parliament’s proposal — which Chaibi played an important role in pushing for, and which advocated a strong set of platform worker employment rights across all 27 EU member-states — has been defeated. The Council blocked such an outcome under the Spanish presidency in December and there is no chance of a late comeback. The dream that the EU might rise to the challenge posed by the gig economy’s disruption of the European employment model, reasserting the primacy of workers’ rights in preventing precariousness, has died.

More positively, the worst possible outcome appears to have been thwarted. Labor law experts had feared that a law could be passed at EU level that would be so bad as to undermine the gains which platform workers and unions have made in hundreds of court cases in individual countries, which have tended to highlight the reality of bogus self-employment. The negotiators on behalf of the European Parliament have made it clear that the Council’s weak proposal under the Belgian presidency is unacceptable. The aspiration of the powerful platform lobby for a Proposition 22 law for Europe has been beaten back.

Two possible outcomes are left. The first is the passing of law that establishes a set of high-level principles for when platform workers should be considered employees, but leaves it up to member-states to decide on the details. This Platform Work Directive–lite is what the Belgian presidency is currently working on. It would not achieve the original ambition of harmonizing labor standards for gig workers across Europe, and would certainly not meet Chaibi’s target of imposing platform workers’ rights upon Macron’s France. For the platform workers’ movement, it would at least avoid the danger of an Uber-friendly law.

The other possibility is that no deal is agreed in time before the end of the parliamentary term, and thus the Directive is timed out. It could potentially be picked up again following June’s elections, but with polls suggesting that the next parliament is going to be significantly to the right of this one, “no deal” has its own risks attached. Nicolas Schmit, the European commissioner responsible for this file who is also the lead candidate for the social democratic group in the upcoming EU election campaign, is desperate to claim a win of some kind. So, the smart money is on something being agreed upon to avoid the humiliation of complete legislative failure.

How does Chaibi assess this muddled outcome, and what does it say about the EU?

“Nothing is completely won, of course, but a lot [has been won] all the same, when nothing has been lost,” she writes. “And it will always be like this: it is a struggle, permanent, eternal, that never stops, Sisyphus pushing his rock.”

What is certainly true is that resistance here has been important in avoiding an even worse conclusion. For left-wingers, this is where the value of entering the European Parliament comes from: it is like Lenin’s “dungheap,” useful for standing on to shout further, if little else. But there is a difference between seeing the Parliament as a site of resistance and seeing it as an idealized vision of the EU as the defender of “Social Europe,” protecting rather than threatening rights.

Chaibi ends the book by proclaiming that an image of a driver protesting outside Uber’s Paris headquarters, with an EU flag draped over his shoulders, offers a “symbol” of Social Europe. But that member states, especially France, have been the key to blocking platform workers’ rights in Brussels is not a design fault: the EU was built to liberate national governments from accountability to their own citizens.

The Platform Work Directive has been a test of whether the EU can protect the employment rights won by previous generations of workers from companies eager to exploit technological change to undermine them. It’s a test that the EU is primed to fail. So be a “Pirate MEP” and “infiltrate the European machine” by all means. But be aware that the machine belongs as much to Macron’s administration and all the other EU member states as it does to the technocrats and lobbyists who populate Brussels.

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