As part of the FES project "Mapping Platform Economy", FES Future of Work has published a policy report on platform economy in Europe. Please find below a summary of our findings.
The ecosystem of online platforms is very heterogeneous, ranging from large international companies to small national or local start-ups. Many institutions and think-tanks have made an attempt to provide an overview of the existing platform ecosystem. It is difficult to collect comprehensive and comparable data on online platform companies. Due to the absence of a common legally binding definition of online platform as well as national registries for active platforms, current estimates of the size of the platform economy are limited to survey data and only partially reflect information available on revenues of the parties involved: including platforms, people working via platforms and third parties (Pesole et al., 2018; Brancati, Pesole and Férnandéz-Macías, 2020; Barcevičius et al., 2021). In many cases, the information that can be gathered is mostly from trade union work and thanks to close cooperation with existing work councils and European institutions.
There are three emerging trends that can be observed from an analysis of secondary data from the national level.
First, the COVID 19 crisis has accelerated the digitalisation of work and increased the need for labour supply for people working via platforms.
Second, some countries that saw major waves of unemployment in past economic crises, for example Spain, Greece and Portugal, witnessed a rollout of the platform economy before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, "platformisation" of the transport and food delivery sector is far from being unique. It is indeed more advanced than in other sectors. Other sectors, however, such as care, cleaning and domestic work as well as routine office tasks have been increasingly moving to platforms by providing more agile and automated processes compared to traditional placement agencies.
There has been significant progress in establishing a social dialogue for platform workers, as many trade unions have become actively involved in the representation of platform workers. The geography of the trade union initiative, workers’ protests and strikes is, however, broad and very fragmented.
In the majority of countries, the collective actions of platform workers are still limited. Platform workers in the transport and food delivery sectors are the best organised and represented. Particularly in such countries like Belgium, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy or Sweden, trade unions have made a great progress in defending the social rights of platform workers. Court cases initiated to have workers recognised as employees have proven to be very effective in the cases of Italy and Spain. Trade unions in Spain, Belgium or the United Kingdom have successfully increased membership of platform workers and won court rulings upholding rights to minimum wages, paid leaves and recognised employee status.
Negotiations between workers and platforms is often subject to unbalanced power relations (Muldoon and Raekstad, 2022). This becomes even more problematic in countries where trade union membership is very low. In Central and Eastern European countries like the Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary or Lithuania, there has been no progress in regulating the employment status of workers and defending their rights (Barcevičius et al., 2021). In other countries, such as the Baltic States, issues relating to an employment status for platform workers have not yet entered into the public discourse.
Defining online platforms across national legislations is an important starting point in any discussion about the ambiguities of platform economy in the EU. The source of definitions can be linked to different legal domains, such as competition law, corporate income tax and/or labour relationship between the platform and the worker (Barcevičius et al., 2021). So far, only a few European countries have made an attempt to introduce a regulatory framework for online platforms, e.g., France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, addressing specific needs of the provision of services or relating to the working conditions of people working though platforms (Brancati, Pesole and Férnandéz-Macías, 2020). In many countries such as Hungary, Lithuania, Croatia, Malta, Czechia, Poland or Slovakia, labour relations between the platform and workers have not even been a subject of public discourse. Platforms continue to be characterised as ‘successful business models’ that can provide ‘entrepreneurial orientation’ for independent contractors (Kilhoffer et al., 2020).
Looking just at the tasks performed through platforms, regardless of whether they are performed online or on-location, there is not much novelty in the work itself. In most of the cases, the work that is performed through platforms is not new, in terms of the scale of tasks, the format of service provision (whether the tasks are delivered locally or online), the level of skills required, the process by which the client is matched to the worker (offer of work versus competition) and the party that is in charge of assigning the work.
However, one of the grey areas of platform work as well as the "platformisation" of different sectors lies predominantly in the introduction of forms of subordination both physical and digital, that as a result contributes further to the deregulation of the employment and labour relationship. While the use of intermediate companies mirrors the development observed in other standard precarious low-paid jobs across different sectors in Europe, the use of algorithmic management creates a totally new field for contestation, as the use of algorithmic management will continue to grow once digitalisation spreads to all sectors of the labour market (Barcevičius et al., 2021: 43).
In order to establish a balanced social dialogue between workers and platform companies, it is important to understand the complexities of platform work as a highly gendered and racialised field by moving away from the normative notion of a platform worker being male, able-bodied and flexible. Since precarious working conditions have different effects on various societal groups, intersectionality places the emphasis on the intertwined relationship between class, race, ethnicity and gender in seeking to understand the economic and labour market inequalities of a diverse population.
Previous research demonstrates that precarious working conditions have always been associated with disadvantaged groups. As Altenried (2021: 3) notices, “low pay and precarity are nothing new or exclusive to digital platforms, but have been the characterising conditions for migrant and racialised labour for centuries, and the history of flexible and contingent labour are closely entwined with this history – and present situation – of mobile labour. Instead of addressing platforms only as innovative disruptors of standard employment, it becomes necessary to discuss how digital platforms are able to renew and reconfigure forms of contingent labour”. Therefore, in addressing the precarity of platform work and building successful strategies to strengthen social dialogue, the interests and needs of women and/or migrants should be addressed at the policy level by looking at platform work through an intersectionality-based approach.
Altenried M. (2021) Mobile workers, contingent labour: Migration, the gig economy and the multiplication of labour. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space. 10.1177/0308518X211054846
Barcevičius E. et al. (2021) Study to support the impact assessment of an EU initiative to improve the working conditions in platform work, Final Report, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union
Brancati, U., C., Pesole, A., Fernández-Macías, E. (2020). New evidence on platformworkers in Europe. Resultsfromthesecond COLLEEM survey, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
Muldoon, J., & Raekstad, P. (2022). Algorithmic Domination in the Gig Economy. European Journal of Political Theory, 147488512210820.
Pesole, A., Urzí Brancati, M.C, Fernández-Macías, E., Biagi, F., González Vázquez, I., (2018) Platform Workers in Europe, EUR 29275 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg