Social dialogue in the age of platform economy

Comparative evidence from Europe

Marta Kahancová, Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI)
Mehtap Akgüç, Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS)

Labour market segmentation and a growing diversification of work structures affected the whole European Union in the past decade. Besides regular employment, diversification of work structures involves various non-standard and often precarious forms of employment. Great innovations in the field of digitalization are however pushing the diversification of work yet in another dimension where non-standard employment is increasingly shifted to various online ‘collaborative platforms’. The collaborative economy refers to “business models where activities are facilitated by collaborative platforms that create an open marketplace for the temporary usage of goods or services often provided by private individuals.”

The platform economy (also known as on-demand economy) brings along new ways for thinking about the labour process and industrial relations. Since work regulation in the collaborative economy often falls outside the traditional regulatory repertoire of the labour law, this phenomenon raises interests to study how work is regulated and how workers’ interests are voiced in order to grant them employment protection and social regulation in the same quality as to workers in regular employment.

This paper addresses the above challenges in the work regulation and workers’ interest representation as part of social dialogue in the platform economy. We analyse how the quality of work of platform workers differs from regular workers; how traditional trade unions view and approach platform workers; and what initiatives unions or similar organisations bringing together platform workers (e.g. collectives, digital groups, social media groups and so on), next to other organisations (e.g., NGOs), initiated in order to raise awareness as regards the employment standards and protection of these workers and thereby contribute to overcoming uncertainty and fragmentations between various forms of work.

After conceptualizing platform economy, we engage in an empirical analysis of platform work and the (potential) role of trade unions and other collective organizations in platform economy in seven EU member states resembling a European diversity in industrial relations systems: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Spain and Slovakia. Original empirical evidence has been collected within an EC-funded research project, focusing on the field of (a) transportation services, i.e., Uber, (b) accommodation services, i.e., AirBNB and (c) microwork, i.e. Helpling. The empirical research is based on primary qualitative data collected via semi-structured interviews with different stakeholders including representatives of employees, employers, public authorities as well as platform workers themselves.

Our findings show that there is a diversity of platforms active in respective countries with a differing degree of expansion of respective sectors (transport, delivery, micro-task, accommodation, etc.) under study. For example, the platform work in transport sector is almost non-existent in Germany, while it is more developed and even regulated in the other countries studied under this research. The motivations to work for such platforms are mostly similar across countries and related to supplemental earnings next to the main job – yet, depending on the sector of activity, the dependence of workers on platform show variety across countries.

In terms of social dialogue, we also found a substantial variation in the context of platform work. France and Denmark seem to be the frontrunners in platform work given the contact between social partners, workers and the platforms. Platform workers in France in transport and delivery sectors even established unions, making it one of the first of its kind in Europe. Despite its smaller size compared to bigger counterparts such as France, Germany and Spain, Belgium has also put in place important regulatory framework (particularly on the fiscal side) when it comes to platform economy. The platform economy is also expanding in Eastern Europe (e.g. Hungary, Slovakia), but social dialogue is rather limited at this stage, yet traditional actors start looking for ways to represent platform workers and employers in social dialogue.

All in all, social dialogue in the platform economy appears to happen mainly at the sectoral level across countries in Europe. It also appears that platform economy presents both new opportunities for social partners to involve platform workers in social dialogue, but given the nature of the platform work, many challenges such as raising awareness in a diverse work setting, incentivising workers to join unions in a fast changing world of work and so on, still lie ahead.