Digital age

Let’s move beyond platitudes on platform work

It feels like every day there are new articles or blog posts about how Uber drivers are exploited, or on the bad working conditions and safety standards for Deliveroo riders. In an era of ‘fake news’ can we trust that these are accurate? They most likely are, and I agree that things are not all rosy with regards to employment and working conditions of platform workers. But we should be careful with generalising from such messages that all platform work is bad.

Platform work is still small in scale in Europe, but it is increasing – and this not only in terms of the number of platforms, workers and tasks, but also the diversity of business models, matching mechanisms and types of tasks that are mediated through an online platform or an app. This diversity makes a considerable difference for the labour market situation and working conditions of the individual worker. Eurofound has identified 10 different types of platform work which are currently operational in Europe, showing that they are each characterised by a variety of opportunities and risks.

Platform positives

On the positive side, the main advantages of platform work are its low entry barriers to the labour market and the easy opportunity to earn (additional) income. This is particularly true with regards to tasks that do not require a high level of specialised skills. Higher skilled tasks, in contrast, might foster entrepreneurship if the platform is used somewhat strategically to try out or strengthen a self-employed activity. However, this only works if the platform’s business model is limited to matching supply and demand for services rather than intervening in the transaction by setting prices or giving instructions to the worker on how to do the job.

Another often discussed positive aspect of platform work is the flexibility it offers – the worker can choose what, when, where and how to work. This is true, but again only if the platform leaves it to the worker and the client to agree on the work organisation and the terms and conditions do not directly or indirectly limit the workers’ flexibility – such as by imposing sanctions when rejecting task offers.

There is a focus in the media on the low earnings of platform workers. The general earnings through platform work is indeed limited, but it should be recognised that in many cases this is in line with the nature of the work: small and low-skilled tasks, and work conducted on an occasional basis. What is more important is whether the earnings are fair or workers are being exploited. Here, we find that if tasks are conducted on-location, with face-to-face contact with the clients, prices tend to be comparable with the ‘traditional economy’, and particularly if the worker has the discretion to set the price, they can not only be decent but are even favourable.

Platform pitfalls

The most discussed issue related to platform work currently is the employment status of the workers: are they employees, self-employed or something in between? This is important as the employment status defines basic rights and entitlements of the workers. It is fraudulent if there is an intentional mismatch between the employment status and the operational characteristics of the employment relationship, which results in a situation in which the workers are worse off than if they had a ‘proper’ employment status. As of today, there are no legal frameworks in Europe clarifying the employment status of platform workers, which in practice leaves it to the platforms to decide. Risks for the workers arise if they are considered to be self-employed and have to bear entrepreneurial risks, but do not enjoy the positive aspects of self-employment – such as when the platform determines the employment and working conditions.

Related to that, one of the distinctive characteristics of platform work – algorithms – raise concerns if they go beyond the matching of supply and demand by, for example, taking on management and control of the transaction. This is even more problematic if the logic behind the algorithm is not transparent to the worker, unfair or even discriminatory.

Platform progress

The main message behind the research on platform work is that it is complex, and probably will get more complex over time. There is no ‘one platform work’. What is positive in one type of platform work can be negative in another type, and we need to be better informed about the different effects on the workers in order to ensure decent working conditions.

Work needs to be done, but we are not starting from scratch: governments, social partners and the platform work community itself are already experimenting with approaches to tackle the emerging issues. However, as these interventions are still in their infancy, we have to monitor them carefully to analyse what works and what does not. We should encourage more information sharing, so that everyone does not have to reinvent the wheel – but that they can rather from each other.

Finally, we should raise awareness of the diversity within platform work and the need for more tailor-made, solutions rather than wasting effort in ‘one-size-fits-all solutions’ which in the end do not really fit anyone.

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