They used to be considered “odd jobs”, just a means of topping up one’s wages. Then, riders, drivers and delivery persons started to strike, and we discovered a fully-fledged labour market - the platform or gig economy - made up of flesh-and-bone workers in search of new rules and new rights. And now, the trade unions are taking a stance and asking to sit at the negotiating table. “It is the usual conflict that arises in all labour relations,” says Valerio De Stefano, Professor of Labour Law at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and an expert in “Non-Standard Forms of Employment and Gig-Economy” of the ILO in Geneva. “What’s new is that consumers are also starting to notice. These people work and have needs. We hadn’t really noticed, until they started to protest, until they said, ‘we provide useful customer services, often to the detriment of workers’.”
Mr De Stefano, are these jobs or odd jobs?
What does odd job even mean? There are only jobs, and jobs have to be protected, whatever the reason behind them. However, if you’re asking me whether this kind of work is central to the life of the workers or whether it is a way of topping up their salary, that’s an entirely different matter. Today, those who work in the platform economy make a career out of it and seek to earn their main income from it. What drives them to work is irrelevant. But in this case, it is often the lack of an alternative, of better paid, more stable employment.
Everything revolves around platforms. Has technology changed working relationships?
Technology is just a tool. It allows platforms and employers to have an instant overview of the demand for their services and of the labour supply, and to assign work contracts as and when required. However, this means that when the demand for goods or services falls, this risk is no longer absorbed by the company but by the worker. If there are no goods to deliver or people to drive around, the worker does not work. But that’s not all. Technology also allows employers to monitor the workers’ position second by second and their speed in performing a given task, thereby increasing the employers’ control over workers. Technology doesn’t really change the structure of the employment relationship, but it certainly allows the platform to switch the employment relationship on and off according to need.
This means that when the demand for goods or services falls, this risk is no longer absorbed by the company but by the worker.
Another dilemma: are we in the realm of employment or self-employment?
Each platform is a case unto itself, but very often underlying these models are forms of HR management that are very similar to traditional employment. It is not that one decides when to work. Workers say when they are going to be available, and then shifts are assigned on the basis of this information. The idea that workers are flexible and can choose when to work should be revised platform by platform. Once you login to the platform, the work does not follow the traditional self-employment route: work is monitored second by second, prices are fixed by the platforms, there is a rating system that also takes account of the customer’s level of satisfaction, and algorithm-driven assessments are made to understand whether the service was successful or not. If the algorithm returns a poor performance, the worker is either penalized, expelled from the platform, given less favourable shifts, or assigned less work. It is not just a question of deciding when to work, therefore, but of understanding how workers are being monitored.
So, the work is monitored by algorithms that also assess the performance of workers. Will it ever come to being sacked by an algorithm?
Employers can base their decisions on the algorithm’s results. But the algorithm is not the root of all evil; it can’t sack anyone. It is the employer who sacks, or who makes decisions based on a possible solution offered by the algorithm. Algorithms are programmed in a particular way; they are not magical entities that operate on their own. What we must do is understand how they are programmed, what parameters are used to evaluate performance, and how decisions are made based on their results. In this regard, we can and must demand more transparency. We must negotiate and demand that the decisions made based on the algorithms’ results meet criteria of sustainability.
In Great Britain, Uber has been defeated several times in court precisely with regard to this matter. So, what’s changing?
In Great Britain, Uber drivers are qualified, not as employees but as “workers” - an intermediate category between employment and self-employment that has a number of labour rights, such as minimum wage, limitation of working hours, paid holidays, etc. They are qualified as workers rather than small businesses - workers who are entitled to a number of fundamental labour rights.
What is the conflict between platform economy workers and companies?
It is the usual conflict that has always arisen in all labour relations. What’s new is that consumers are also starting to notice. Knowing that we can order something from the comfort of our own home and that someone will deliver it is just great. The mistake consumers risk making is thinking that this service is entirely digitally and that robots carry our food home to us or algorithms deliver our parcels. Technology only gives us the possibility to access certain services, but these are then performed by people. These people work and have needs. We hadn’t really noticed, until they started to protest, until they said: ‘we provide useful customer services, often to the detriment of workers’. And now they are asking for more; more than what they are currently entitled to. They strike, they ask to sit at the negotiating table. For the moment, it is all par for the course in labour relations. As long as we have a system with capital on one side and labour on the other, there will be a conflict between capital and labour. These are flesh-and-bone people demanding to be treated better; it is only to be expected. It’s the way of the world and always will be, at least until we are all replaced by robots, which will probably never happen.
Technology only gives us the possibility to access certain services, but these are then performed by people.
What point is regulation at in Italy?
The debate has only just started. At the moment, we have realised that there are people behind our food deliveries, that it isn’t a computer that deals with them. Elsewhere they got there before us, but better late than never. We know we need to do something, and that the unions must be involved. And the workers themselves know that there is strength in numbers. This sets them apart from the old guard of self-employed contractors and freelancers, who did not possess the propensity to self-regulate and to exert industrial pressure against their clients. The more we move forward, the more likely it is that traditional trade unions will start to take an interest. Italy’s new logistics bargaining agreement, for example, includes riders among its contractual qualifications.
It is often said that by regulating this sector we risk changing its nature.
Not having to resort to an underpaid workforce is a question of increasing efficiency. We must fight the argument that “what is new cannot be regulated”. What we should do is discuss whether existing regulations need to be reviewed to cope with key issues. It is not fair to say that certain types of companies can only operate outside of the law. If, in order to work, they require substandard and illegal working conditions, then we have a problem - and the problem lies with the companies, not with the legislators.
What is the stance taken by such companies vis-a-vis the trade unions?
For the time being, the companies claim to be open to the debate, but in certain cases they have said that they want to speak with individual workers, and not with the trade unions. The debate has to be collective, and not individual, otherwise we’re back to square one. Companies can’t expect to choose their negotiating partner. They have to negotiate with the collective organisations that the workers have chosen to represent them.
What future awaits these workers?
These forms of work will be increasingly regulated by the social partners. If the protests continue and if they inconvenience companies sufficiently, then the employers will also sit at the table and negotiate better working conditions. That’s always been the way, and there’s no reason to think things will change. Nobody has a magic wand. In every case, the only way forward is to negotiate suitable working conditions. In this field like in any other.