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27 February 2020

Platform work: much ado about nothing?

Platform and internet work have attracted a lot of attention in recent years and have been identified as key evidence of the changing nature of the labour market. It was therefore not surprising that the ETUI Monthly Forum devoted to this subject attracted considerable attention. At the event, which took place on 18 February 2020, ETUI senior researchers Agnieszka Piasna and Jan Drahokoupil presented the results of their Internet and Platform Work Survey, which maps the extent of digital labour in central and eastern Europe (CEE). The survey was conducted in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia in the period 2018–2019.

Piasna and Drahokoupil embarked on this research because they found that the comparative studies informing the debate at the EU level left a lot of uncertainty about the magnitude of platform work. Current numbers rely on findings from online marketing research panels which, ironically, themselves very much resemble platform work. The ETUI study, on the other hand, took a standard social research approach, using a random sample of the entire adult population and face-to-face interviews in respondents’ homes. This study delivered smaller percentages of people who say that they are platform workers (numbers range from 1.9 per cent in Poland to 7.8 per cent in Hungary), and the number is even smaller when asked if people do this type of work on a regular basis. The ETUI researchers also found out that internet and platform workers do not radically differ from other working-age adults in terms of age and gender but that their labour market situation is “somewhat more precarious”. They did not find evidence that platform work serves as a “stepping stone” to the labour market, and there is certainly “little overlap with the knowledge-based economy”. 

Irene Mandl from Eurofound then talked about the approach taken by the Dublin-based foundation on this topic and presented their resources on internet and platform work. Given the large number of quantitative studies already in existence and the challenges of carrying out such research, they instead chose to take a qualitative approach, focusing on employment and working conditions. This has resulted in the creation of a typology of platform work, which includes such types as ‘on-location platform-determined routine work’ or ‘online moderately skilled click work’, among others. Eurofound then studied the impact of these different types of work on the labour market. They made a point of highlighting the opportunities as well as the drawbacks because, as Mandl explained, “in the media we see only the bad situations”. Similarly, there are pros and cons to these activities in terms of working conditions. In its ‘Policy Pointers’, Eurofound’s study recommends strategically exploring the opportunities of platform work, but also considering its potential unintended side effects, such as labour market segmentation and crowding out. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Mandl insisted. 

Justin Nogarede, Digital Policy Adviser at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) talked about his organisation’s own participation in a study on digital work. Although FEPS relied on online research, the results were very similar to those of the ETUI study. For Nogarede, it is crucial that policy focuses on precarious work. “There is no such a thing as a platform worker for whom we need specific regulation,” he said. “There are links with poverty, migrant work, etc., so policy needs to support the worker’s main job via the minimum wage and universal social protection.” 

Ignacio Doreste, ETUC advisor on platform work, congratulated the ETUI for this research which he said “dismantles some myths around platform work. It might not be as extensive as we have been saying, but it does not mean that we should not regulate the labour conditions.” The ETUC has created an ‘observatory’ on the platform economy, and there are some interesting cases of unions signing agreements with platforms in Denmark and Italy, as well as the establishment of a workers’ council at the delivery service Foodora in Austria. Doreste felt that there had been some positive changes in the European Commission’s approach but that EU competition law is still too narrowly interpreted, which has an impact on vulnerable workers.

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