Podcast / Tech Won’t Save Us / Feb 29, 2024

A Setback for Gig Workers’ Rights in Europe

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Ben Wray on why the EU’s Platform Work Directive isn’t moving forward.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Kara Swisher Shows Tech Journalism’s Flaws w/ Edward Ongweso Jr. | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

Paris Marx is joined by Edward Ongweso Jr. to discuss Kara Swisher’s attempt to rebrand herself as the most feared journalist in Silicon Valley, how she spent her career forwarding the industry’s narratives, and the larger problems with access journalism.

Edward Ongweso Jr. is finance editor at Logics Magazine and co-host of This Machine Kills.

Advertising Inquiries: https://redcircle.com/brands

Privacy & Opt-Out: https://redcircle.com/privacy

Delivery riders prepare to start “La Grande Livraison,” their bicycle journey from Paris to Brussels to defend their rights, in Paris on November 5, 2023.

Delivery riders prepare to start “La Grande Livraison,” their bicycle journey from Paris to Brussels to defend their rights, in Paris on November 5, 2023.

(Alain Jocard / AFP via Getty Images)

On this episode of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast, we’re joined by Ben Wray to discuss why the European Union’s Platform Work Directive isn’t moving forward, what hope remains for gig workers’ rights in Europe, and what we should make of Uber’s first annual profit.

Ben Wray is the coordinator of the Gig Economy Project and the author of Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

Kara Swisher Shows Tech Journalism’s Flaws w/ Edward Ongweso Jr. | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

Paris Marx is joined by Edward Ongweso Jr. to discuss Kara Swisher’s attempt to rebrand herself as the most feared journalist in Silicon Valley, how she spent her career forwarding the industry’s narratives, and the larger problems with access journalism.

Edward Ongweso Jr. is finance editor at Logics Magazine and co-host of This Machine Kills.

Advertising Inquiries: https://redcircle.com/brands

Privacy & Opt-Out: https://redcircle.com/privacy

Paris Marx: Ben, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Ben Wray: Nice to join you again, Paris. 

Paris Marx: It’s always great to chat. You were last on the show about a year ago when we were talking about, of course, the Platform Work Directive. And at that time, it was coming out of the European Parliament, which is of course, the elected part of the European political institutions, where you have representatives of the different member states. So, there was a lot of hope and positivity in that time around what the Platform Work Directive might mean for workers in the gig economy, working on these platforms. 

Can you talk to us a bit about, obviously, there have been a number of developments, that’s why you’re on the show. But I wanted to go back to that time to actually see how this process evolved before we get to the vote that recently happened. So after it moved out of the European Parliament and went to the European Council, and through this negotiation process called the trialog, what was happening there and how did that framework that came out of the parliament devolve once it interacted with these other bodies in the European government?

Ben Wray: So it’s been a very, very long and quite confusing process with the Platform Work Directive. Originally it started, it was first introduced as being part of the agenda for the European Union in 2019, and it’s still going on now in 2024. So it’s been a long process. As you said, there was a key moment in March 2023, when the European Parliament supported what was quite an ambitious proposal. And basically, that included a general presumption of employment for the platform economy. Now, what that doesn’t mean and what companies like Uber and the platform lobby argues that means that every worker would overnight be put onto an employment contract. It doesn’t mean that. All it means is that the labor inspectors in different European countries would go and investigate a workplace. If they found that those workers were subordinates, if they were controlled by the platform, they would then say that you have to hire this worker, the company would have a chance to appeal against that in court, and it could do that, but if they lose the court case, then you’d be forced to hire the worker. 

So that’s all that the idea of a general presumption of employment means, is that there’ll be a process by which a worker can be made an employee, either through a labor inspector doing an investigation or the worker themselves, taking the case to court and challenging it directly. So that’s the main part of the law. And the second part of the law, the less contentious part, is algorithmic management rates. So, the right for platform workers to know what information the platform is holding on them. The right to human oversight for key decisions about robo firing — that will be basically banned. The right for platforms not to collect data on workers when they know at work, not to collect data on workers when they are about issues that are not to do with work, like about their sexuality, about political views. A whole set of data rights for platform workers, and those are the two parts of the legislation. So the European Parliament’s proposal was pretty ambitious, and in the council, which is the 27 Member States, France, Germany, so on and so forth. They’ve been working on their own proposal, and the two proposals get negotiated. 

The council eventually came up with its proposal under the Swedish Presidency in June 2023. That was a much less ambitious proposal, had lots of opt outs for countries. It had — what I think would have been — a system which will allow unions to flourish, alternative to platform workers rights. Companies like Google could establish collective agreements with yellow unions, unions which are basically company unions. It had a very hard criteria for triggering the presumption of employment. So it did also have a presumption of employment, like the European proposal, but the criteria was so tough for triggering it, that it would make it very, very hard for workers to actually be able to access those employment rates. So that was in June, and then there was what’s called trilogue negotiations between European Parliament and the Council to try to thrash out a deal. Now, under the Spanish Presidency in December, now Spain is the state, the one state, in EU that’s already introduced a general presumption employment for food delivery couriers. They are the most on the progressive side of all the states in this argument. 

They negotiated an agreement with the European Parliament that was then rejected by the council, that agreement. And it’s basically a group of states clustered around France, being the leading one there are very hostile to employment leads for platform workers. They are most, let’s say, Uber friendly, in their outlook on the gig economy. So that was rejected. And then under the Belgian Presidency, the way it works in the EU is that there is a six month rotating presidency. But each member state gets a chance to have that presidency. So the Belgian Presidency began in January. They negotiated a new deal with the European Parliament, which basically left up to each member state to decide on what the presumption of employment would look like. So if France wanting to have a very weak presumption of employment, it was difficult to implement, then France could do that. Spain wanted to have a strong one — they could do that. That’s cutting a long story short, that was basically the agreement that they negotiated. 

But that was also rejected on 16th of February by what’s called a blocking minority of states. So just four out of the 27 states opposed it. But because those four states included France and Germany, and on the council you need 55% of all states to support any legislative change, and you need 65% of the population share of all states to supporting legislative change. And France and Germany are by far the two biggest countries in the EU, and those two countries combined make up 53.8%. So with those two countries, not supporting the directive, they won a couple of other countries, Estonia and Greece. That was enough to form a blocking minority. Not very democratic that four countries can block the will of 27. I mean, the whole process in my opinion is not very transparent and not very democratic. But that’s what’s happened. Now, it looked like that was going to be all over. There was going to be no directive because the time’s running out, basically, the European Parliamentary term is about end. There’s elections in early June, and before that, there’s a two month period for campaigning in the elections. 

So it looked like there was no time to renegotiate a new deal. It now seems like, what I’ve heard —and I’ve been in Brussels for the past week speaking to people and what I’ve heard, the information that’s come out — is that it’s possible still that there could be an agreement. It’s going to a meeting, some exchange meeting called EPSCO. Don’t ask me to explain too much about what the hell that is, but it’s a meeting of economy and labour ministers in Europe. Some people are saying it might be that the Belgian Presidency is able to convince a couple of the states to change their mind with the same text. Some people are saying that the text can still be renegotiated again. It’s all a bit of a mess at this point. It seems like there’s all sorts of behind closed doors deals being thrashed out, potentially. 

So we don’t know if it’s going to happen or not now. But I guess one of the key things to recognize at this point is that even if a directive does happen now, it’s nowhere near as ambitious as it was originally going to be. It’s not going to be as big a deal as it was originally going to be. Because when I was talking to you about the European Parliament proposal, we were looking at a Platform Work Directive which would have been the most ambitious anywhere in the world at that point. It would have been a trailblazer internationally, I think. So that’s certainly been pushed back now. It’s not going to be anything like that, but it’s possible that still something could come from it within the next few weeks.

Paris Marx: That’s a really great summation of everything that’s been going on over the past year. The one thing I would add, just for people who are not familiar with the European Parliamentary process, as you say, very democratic, as you’ve explained, is that the third body there is the Commission. So, the council represents the EU member states and the Commission, is more of like the executive branch of what’s going on there. You talked about how this proposal evolved over time, basically, where you had this really ambitious proposal from the Parliament, and then was increasingly watered down, as it went through these negotiations with the council, often headed by right-wing governments who had the presidency of the council at the various times. You kind of touched on this a bit, but how are people feeling about the state of the proposal, as it was finally going up for these final votes and whether it was going to pass? Was it a feeling that if it would pass that it was still going to be really transformative? If it were to be accepted into law and have to be implemented by these member states? Or was there a feeling that this opportunity had really passed because it had been watered down so much?

Ben Wray: I think it was somewhere in between a feeling of dejection and failure and a feeling of triumph. I think it was kind of the thinking is, we live to fight another day, because basically what would have happened is that one part would have been quite straightforwardly positive, which would have been algorithmic rights, because that would have been for all workers, regardless of employment status. All platform workers, regardless of employment status, they could access them. But in terms of the key question of employment status, I think because the fight over the criteria — and that has been a big thing within the whole debate: should there be a criteria? Some states have proposed that there should be five criteria, and two are needed to trigger it. Some have proposed seven and three are needed to trigger it. Some have proposed no criteria. That’s been a big part of the wrangling of it. All of that wrangling would have been just moved to the 27 capitals of Europe, who would have had these debates in the process. Because it would have been a two year process for the EU law to be transposed. So it’d be two years to have these debates and arguments and work what that law at a national level should look like. 

It’s worth saying that it’s in some ways kind of strange that the EU is debating this because labor law is a national competence within Europe. So it’s perfectly possible for the 23 member states that voted to support this proposal to introduce their own platform work regulation, regardless of whether the EU pass a law or not. They can have the competencies to do that. So it will been possible to push for a national level anyway. But if this passed or if it does still pass, it would have been a requirement on those states to establish the presumption of employment and that criteria for that sort of thing. So, I think it was better than nothing, definitely. And it would have been something for the movement that’s campaigned around this issue for years now to build on. So I think it was looked at positively, but not the kind of transformative change that one point looked possible.

Paris Marx: So I guess the feeling, then from activism and from platform workers, and people who are engaged in this topic. is that even though it was taking a lot of time, it was potentially worth it to do so because instead of just potentially getting progress in certain member states. Where there were governments that were more open to something like this, then there was the potential to push every member state to have to act on it through this directive, instead of just having these national wins. Because one of the things that stood out to me as you were explaining this, initially, this process began in 2019. We’re now in 2024, you said there was two years to implementation, once something is actually agreed. So if you think about the speed at which these companies do try to transform these sectors and do try to disrupt the economy and society. You can see how this European government process is very unresponsive to these immediate needs that workers and people might have.

Ben Wray: That’s a good point about how quickly the platforms change, because there are certain things missing from even algorithmic rights part of this directive, around upfront fares, and dynamic pacing and all that sort of thing, which, as we are meant to talk about a little bit about later is being key to Uber’s newfound profitability. So in some ways, it has already fallen a bit behind. I guess one thing, though, is that the reality is that states have not moved on this issue on platform work regulation. As I said, there’s nothing that’s been stopping them in these years to do something about it and they have not done so. So in many ways, I think a reason why a lot of hopes were pinned on EU laws, because well, one that then covers 27 member states in one go. So that’s what 500 million workers or something like that. It covers a lot of people and, two, that there’s a kind of pragmatic thing that actually, there’s something happening. We’re in this EU law, whereas most countries in Europe have been very slow to actually move on this.

Paris Marx: That makes a lot of sense. When you talk about the positions of different countries, obviously, Spain has been a real leader and really trying to push this forward. But obviously, in order for it to be watered down at the council level, that means that there are a lot of countries that are not so engaged in this or that are engaged in the other direction and trying to water this down and make sure that there aren’t strong platform worker rights. Can you talk a bit about the positions of key countries that have been involved in the process and how they have tried to shape this directive? 

Ben Wray: As I said before, there’s two countries which represent either side of this debate and have been polarizing either side the whole way through. France, on the one side, where Emmanuel Macron is the president. People may know that Emmanuel Macron was caught up in the Uber files scandal a couple of years ago, whereby it was revealed that all the way back in 2015, when he was an economies minister in another socialist French government, he had been working and collaborating with Uber to defend their illegal entry into that country, and even to defend violent protests and things like that, that Uber drivers have been involved in, and that sort of thing. So Macron’s role as a kind of chief advocate for Uber has been long-standing and since he’s been French president since 2017 he’s continued to do that quite openly, quite publicly. He’ll say: I believe this is part of the future of work. I believe these companies are contributing to our economy. When he was asked about Uber files scandal, he said: I would do it all over again unashamed about his role. 

So, in France what they’ve established is what they call a social dialogue system as an alternative to platform workers rights. Where basically there’s a government arbitration body, which sits between the platforms on the one side, and worker representatives who have been elected directly in a process a couple of years ago. It’s very controversial system, a lot of the unions boycotted it. The platforms are the dominant force within it. There’s been strikes in France which have exposed the limitations of that system that actually workers wages continue to fall and food delivery and retail. So basically, cut long story short, France is at the kind of vanguard of a group of states which are very pro-platform. Spain is on the other side with a smaller group of states which are dedicated to an idea that should be employment rights. I think an important thing about this is where Germany sets in this process. France voted against and in Germany, Estonia, and Greece abstained. Germany has abstained the whole way through this process. For over two years, the German government has abstained every single stage of the process, refused to take a position.

Germany is a coalition government led by the Social Democratic Party, where the Social Democratic Labour Minister, obviously the Labour Minister is responsible for this file. Now what is claimed is that the smallest part in that coalition, that kind of ultra liberal party called the Free Democratic Party, FTP, have blocked the German government from supporting the directive. I find it a little bit ridiculous, because not only is it the smallest part in the coalition, not only do they not hold the labor ministry, they’re polling at under 5% and you need to get 5% in the German parliament to get any representatives. So right now it looks like they’re going to be completely wiped out in the next elections. So this idea they have such power to dictate what the German government does at EU level seems fanciful to me. A lot of journalists argue that is the case, that basically they do have that policy that if every party of the coalition doesn’t support it, and then you can support it. 

It’s actually really disappointing for a lot of countries, because the social democratic part of the European Parliament has been massively pushing for this directive. For a social democratic-led government to be responsible for this directive not passing is pretty controversial, and it’s pretty poor. I think one thing I haven’t mentioned so far is that for a lot of people there’s a little bit of a sigh of relief, that something worse hasn’t been agreed. Because there was concern that if the council got its way, there’ll be a European version of Prop 22, where you pass a law which binds member states into a very weak criteria and makes it very difficult for workers to access employment right. It would actually be a step back because right now, workers can go to court and win the case on a case by case basis. It’s not very good. It doesn’t help a lot of workers. If you passed a law which was kind of underneath the jurisprudence established in most courts around Europe, it would actually be damaging for workers democratic access and their rights. There’s that side of looking at it as well, that at least we didn’t have a Prop 22 law and it could have been worse.

Paris Marx: That’s a really good point. Obviously, that would be a terrible development, but it is good to hear some of the positions of those key countries, because that really does shape the development. And as you say, countries like France — and I know the Swedish presidency was arguing this as well which is under a right wing government at the moment as well — were basically arguing that they have their own labor model, so why should they be forced to adapt to something that was going to be placed in the platform work directive? That wouldn’t align with the way that they treat labor relations in their country? Which I think is kind of a deceptive argument being put forward by right-wing governments there. 

I wanted to ask as well about the positions of the platform companies, and there was a quote in  one of your newsletters, maybe it was an article you wrote, or a tweet rather, from Kim Van Sparentak, an MEP for the Dutch Greens and deputy rapporteur on the platform work directive, who tweeted, “Macron and the German liberals apparently consider the profits of large platform companies such as Uber and Deliveroo, more important than better working conditions for the most precarious workers. Unfortunately, the tens of millions of euros in lobbying money have paid for themselves.” And just a quick note for US listeners, when we say liberal in relation to the Free Democratic Party in Germany, that means liberal in the economic sense, not in the social sense we usually use it in North America. But in thinking about the platform companies, how have they been engaged in this process and have they been saying anything since the defeat of the Platform Work Directive earlier this month?

Ben Wray: Basically, I think the last time we spoke was just after the European Parliament passed its law and that was seen as a defeat of the platform lobby because they had really pushed so hard. MEPs I’ve talked about — the rapporteur on the directive, Elisabetta Galmini — she said in an interview, she’s never seen such a hard campaign by a corporate lobby to push against passing that proposal in the European Parliament. So the platform lobby lost that one, but it always had allies on the member states. So they always had that as a fallback to defend that position. I mean, it’s worth saying that the EU is based in Brussels in Belgium and that city has 70,000 corporate lobbyists in it, and there’s only 700 Members of the European Parliament. You do the math it’s quite dominated by the corporate lobbying. They move freely in the buildings, and there’s no doubt that they’re influential. 

The platform lobby specifically massively beefed up its resources in Brussels. Uber hired lots more people. They’ve established their own lobby groups; one’s called Move EU, the other one’s called Delivery Platforms Europe. So they’re really taking this seriously because they know, if Uber had to employ its drivers and riders, you’re talking about a 20% to 30% increase in costs. As the directive looked like it could be passed, like a strong directive could be negotiated, Uber basically had a big piece in The Financial Times where they basically basically threatened that if this law passes, we are going to move out of hundreds of cities, abandon hundreds of cities across Europe, and what they call work opportunities — because obviously, they don’t want to say jobs — but work opportunities are going to be slashed by hundreds of thousands or whatever the law is passed. Basically, a kind of blackmail, this is going to affect jobs if you go through with this. Now, when the directive first came about in 2019, there was less concern around unemployment issues in Europe than there had been during the peak of the Eurozone crisis around 2013-2014, and there was more focus on precarious work. 

But I think one of the things that’s happened is, as this process has developed, we’ve had the inflation crisis in Europe, there’s been more concern around employment issues, in general. And I think that may have played a role in some of the member states thinking: Actually, we don’t want to be hundreds of thousands of less platform workers in Europe. So I think that those tactics over if to focus on job losses, although they won’t call it job losses, to focus on pulling out of citie. I think that probably has had an impact on some of the member states and pulling back from a stronger directive. So they will be pretty happy. I think with this outcome, they seem very quiet at the moment. They don’t want to be gloating about it, obviously, and because the process isn’t over. I think if there’s no directive, they will be pretty happy. Although it’s not their most desirable outcome, as I said, would have been a kind of Prop 22 law for Europe.

Paris Marx: That’s a really good point. I think it’s interesting to look at how, I don’t know how it feels in Europe, but it feels like the reporting that we used to have on Uber’s legal campaign to enforce a Prop 22 way of governing the platform economy has really fallen off in North America in the past couple of years. Like there’s less focus on it since the aftermath of Prop 22 was experienced, even as they continue this push in many more places. But the focus just shifted to other things, after Prop 22. I also think it’s interesting, then to see the power that they’ve been able to wield in order to try to do these things and how, as always, they take advantage of these economic conditions, when they turn negative in order to benefit themselves. Oviously, Uber was founded during the last financial crisis, and of course, grew in Europe during the Eurozone crisis. Now that people are struggling again, Uber has been able to take advantage of that for itself, even as all these workers who deliver the service on its platform are struggling. It’s a company that benefits from this precarity, which is obviously why it fights so much to keep it in place.

Ben Wray: I mean, I think Dara Khosrowshahi actually openly said that the inflation crisis was good for Uber because it was pushing people to drive, get back in the car after the pandemic and start driving and earn additional income. And obviously, they’ve had an onslaught on wages. And that’s been in the United States, that’s been in Europe. Right now, there’s strikes going on in UK, food delivery strikes. And that is all about the fact that over the last three or four years, the pay rates for food delivery carriers has been slashed, they’ve really fallen pretty sharply. So, absolutely I think Uber is a company that thrives on, put it this way, it can only maintain its precarious model due to a wider context in the labor market of precarity.  Where people are vulnerable and they’re pushed to do these sorts of jobs at these sorts of pay rates.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. I feel like the focus when we talk about the Platform Work Directive, and so many of these legislative proposals, is on the employment piece, and whether or not we’re going to have that presumption of employment or employment status for these platform workers, but as you said at the beginning that there’s a whole other piece of this surrounding data rights and making sure that workers have rights to the data that the platforms are collecting on them, that there are rules around the data that can be collected on them. Can you talk a bit more about that piece and why that is important? I know that Spain started to move on this couple of years ago. Has there been any progress in the Spanish case on the data rights for platform workers?

Ben Wray: That’s a good question, actually, because my understanding is the Spanish laws end up being a lot more limited and difficult to access than it was originally hoped when it was passed back in 2021. I lose track of the years, but I think it was 2021 when the Rider Law was passed. Basically, the idea within that law, as well as employment status, was that union representatives would be able to access the data. First of all, it’s difficult to be a union representative for a lot of these workers because the vast majority are self-employed. Who do you collectively bargain with, if they’re still self-employed? I won’t go into the whole story of why they’re still self-employed in Spain. But basically, it’s because the platforms — Uber Eats and Glovo, the two main platforms there — are still refusing to employ them despite the passing of the law. I understand that where they have grocery delivery riders who are employed, that there is union representatives in some of those warehouses, like dark stores that operate out of, and then they have tried to access the data rights, and that sort of thing. But it’s quite difficult to do it under current EU law, which is called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it is possible for any consumer or worker to submit an application to say: I want you to give me the data you hold on me. 

Now, I’ve looked at some case studies of workers in Geneva, Uber drivers in Geneva, who have put in GDPR requests and got the information. And it’s very, very difficult for those workers to make sense of the data they’re given. It’s not pretty legible. If they have the help of data scientists and stuff like that they can make use of it. They combine it with other methods of scraping data, and and that sort of thing to try to work it out. So in Geneva, the case was basically the court found that the workers were actually employees and had to have backdated pay. But how do you decide how much backpay you should have? You have to access the data, but Uber controls the data. So Uber said: We owe this much money to these workers, and those workers, with the help of data scientists and a group called PersonalData.io, they basically said: Here’s our true data of what we’re owed; we are actually owed this much; we’re owed more. So there’s some examples in Europe of GDPR already being used to access the information, but it’s quite limited. And it’s very difficult for an individual worker to do. I do think trade unions should be invested more in these sorts of tools.

Paris Marx: I think what that really says to me as well, or really makes clear, is the real difference in the power that the workers have between the platform companies themselves. Because there can be a law or there can be a court ruling that says: You have these rights; you can take advantage of these rights, but then the platform companies themselves can completely ignore them, or can take years to even force a law to go through the courts in order to be sorted out there. So that they can constantly delay the implementation of these rights that go in favor of the workers if those even exist. We look in California, where the workers achieved AB 5. And then Uber, of course found ways, and the other platform companies, through getting the Prop 22 ballot measure to move forward and deceptively telling the public what that would be about. But of course, in Spain, where we see them, as you say, not following what the riders law would hope is actually going to happen there and forcing this really long implementation process, because they see that as being beneficial to them. 

For example, in the UK, where the Supreme Court found that the worker should be considered this worker status, which is above independent contractor. But then Uber just turned it into basically its own Prop 22 In the UK, against what the ruling actually found, or what the workers say the ruling has found. Now they’ve had to go back to the court again to try to get Uber to actually observe what the Supreme Court said that they should be doing. So it just shows time and again, how these companies have the power to be able to do that. And it really speaks to me or really shows me that this is in part a product of the fact that these companies operate on such a large scale. They’re not just operating in this one city, where the taxi workers that work for a taxi company can unionize and push back against them and try to win particular rights and get a city to regulate what the taxi industry is going to look like. But instead, now you have these companies that operate on a continental level or even a global level that have so much more power and money to just throw at these things to stop workers from achieving any degree of power or rights, or what have you.

Ben Wray: Absolutely. I think one thing I’ve learned from looking at these different kind of legislative battles is the implementation is as important as the actual legislation. And if states aren’t willing to really act on legislation or aren’t resourced, which is a big issue that labor inspectors don’t actually have the resources to act on the legislation, platforms will find ways around it. I think that’s part of the business model of these platforms is to work within legal grey areas to find loopholes. They pay expensive corporate lawyers to do that work. So you don’t just need to pass legislation, you need to have states which are dedicated to fighting to make it happen. And I guess you also need unions and workers to push those states as well to act on the legislation. So it doesn’t stop when you pass a law. In fact, in some ways, that’s just the beginning of the fight to actually hold these companies to account.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. I think, as you say, Spain, and these other examples really show us that that’s the case, and really show us how important the implementation side is, not just achieving the law in the first place. Now, obviously, as we’ve talked about, the Platform Work Directive came up for vote on February 16th, and was defeated. As you say, France voted against it, and Germany, Estonia, and Greece abstained. And this was enough to ensure that the Platform Work Directive won’t move forward, at least in this current phase, because that was enough to block it, even though that would have meant about 65% of the states, by population, were still in favor of it. And 88% of the states, it would have been by number, were still in favor of it. So what does this say about the future of the rights of platform workers in the European Union? You were at this conference last week in Brussels, where unions and platform workers and advocates for the rights of platform workers came together. What are they thinking about what the fight is going to look like moving forward after this vote on the platform work directive at the European Union level?

Ben Wray: It’s interesting, because when this initiative for this directive came about it was part of a kind of broader suite of measures that the EU wanted to take around what it called ‘continuing an economy that works for people.’ In Europe for decades, we’ve talked about a European social model, that Europe stands out as being a place in the world where there are employment protections for workers, where there’s a welfare state to fall back on. That doesn’t exist in the United States and many other countries, especially obviously, in the Global South. That has clearly been eroded over recent times for privatization, austerity, and the rise of things like the gig economy. So the failure to pass a successful EU directive is kind of symbolic of the decline of the European social model. There was always a kind of exaggerated thing, because there’s always been poverty in Europe. It’s not like there’s some sort of paradise, really, really not. But I think it is the case that there was some level of employment protections for all workers and that you didn’t at some point have the level of precarity that you see now. At a broader political level should be registered that the EU has failed to deliver protection and protect the European social model with this law.

So in Brussels last week, there was two big conferences, two big platform work conferences. The first was a a trade union one, held by the European Trade Union Institute. And that was a lot of researchers and academics and that sort of thing. The second one was the Alternatives to Uberisation Forum, which is organized by the left group in the European Parliament. And that’s the fourth of those conferences and that’s been a kind of key hub for platform workers and activists around Europe to meet with supportive politicians and that sort of thing and organize. So coming just days after the defeat of the platform work directive, there was a lot of disappointment in the room, that was quite clear. People were not trying to hide they were disappointed by the way it went. But people were quite determined as well, because as we’ve just said, it’s not just about the legislation, it’s about the organization. 

Basically, what the workers committed to, out of that conference, was that they would establish a permanent network that would operate independently of what’s happening at the EU, independently of whether there’s a Platform Work Directive or not, that would meet annually, that would coordinate actions, and it would try to maintain what’s been built up, which is a network of trade unions and of what’s called workers collectives, grassroots worker organization, which has organized around this directive across Europe. And they would try to keep that vote. So I think that was a positive thing to come out of the conference, that the workers and activists are dedicated to this, aren’t given up. They’re going to keep fighting, they’re going to try to take it if there’s no EU law, they’ll try to take it to the national level and pursue it there. 

There’s some people have said after the next European elections, that this could come up again, but I think most people I spoke to seem to think that was a dead end. If it doesn’t happen now, then it’s not going to happen later. Because it’s expected that the far-right is going to do well in the European Parliamentary elections, and that the balance around this law in the European Parliament will become more unfavorable after European elections. So it’s just not seen as now or never sort of thing for a European law. If not a European law, then the activists are thinking about how they can go back and fight for a law at the national level. 

Paris Marx: That’s a really good point. I did want to bring up the political angle to this as well, because as we have been having these discussions about platform workers rights in Europe — whether it was last year or again, here — the politics of the various governments involved has been quite important to shaping their various perspectives on this and whether it’s been able to move forward. And so as you say, it seems unlikely that it would come up again after June, after the European Parliamentary elections, because it looks like the right-wing and the far-right, in particular are going to do well. But what does that also say about a strategy to try to move this forward on the national level? As you said, there was 23 member states who voted in favor of the Platform Work Directive. So I guess my questions are: Have any of those member states signaled that they’re ready to move forward on a national level to do something if the Platform Work Directive isn’t moving forward? And then the second piece of that would be, we know that there is this general shift to the right, it seems to be happening in European politics and with various national governments, does that make that more difficult than to achieve?

Ben Wray: I think probably there would be more chance of passing a directive if certain governments hadn’t fallen in the hands of the right-wing. So Greece is an example of that. I think Greece, I can’t remember what year now, but certainly, in the last couple of years, the main, right-wing party, New Democracy, won a majority. That wouldn’t have happened — I’ve got lots of criticisms of this main center-left party in Greece, Syriza, they wouldn’t have supported the blocking minority of states on the European Council.  So that’s happened already, and if the slide to the right and the far-right continues, then we can expect that will continue to happen. I’m not aware of any countries saying yet that they’re gonna act on this national level. I think, probably everyone’s waiting to see what happens exactly whether something can be agreed or not. So, to be seen, in terms of that.

Paris Marx: No, that makes sense and we’ll have to follow that and read your newsletter to get the updates on what’s going on there. As we start to kind of close off our conversation, I wanted to pivot away from the Platform Work Directive a bit, unless you think that there’s anything else that people should know about that, to talk a bit about Uber. We recently had Uber report its first annual profit, that seems to be at least somewhat legitimate using proper accounting standards, instead of its made-up of accounting standards. What is your thinking on the state of Uber these days, as it reports this first annual profit and as it’s trying to send this narrative at least to financial markets that after 15 years, the model is finally working and it’s paying off and it’s proving that it’s a good business and all this kind of stuff? What is your take on Uber?

Ben Wray: Well, let me first direct people to your newsletter, “Disconnect,” and there was an excellent piece exactly about Uber’s profits and what it says about the company where it’s going. So you’ve already said in your newsletter better than I can.

Paris Marx: [Paris laughs]. Thank you! 

Ben Wray: But what I would say is that my understanding of how Uber has got to this point of of profit-value. For one thing, still quite a lot of that profit comes from its equity stakes. So let’s keep that in mind, it’s still very slim profit, if you take out those equity stakes. Its operational profit is actually still pretty slim. But what it seems to have managed to do to get there is to massively increase the rate of exploitation of its drivers and riders. The commission taken on every trip has gone up, I think, something like 28%, if I remember correctly. So basically, it’s used this new form of payment system, what’s called upfront fares. You get to see before you accept the task, accept the delivery or the journey, how much you’ll be paid for it. But you don’t have any understanding as a driver or rider why you’re being offered that pay rate. It’s not related to the distance-traveled; it’s not related to the time it takes to do the trip. Basically, Uber has an algorithmic way of determining those periods, which include behavioral patterns of the drivers. 

Now, I did a piece just after Uber announced the Q4 2023 results where, of course, Dara Khosrowshahi had an investor call and he was asked about upfront fares and he said: We’re continuing to roll this out based on the behavioral pattern of drivers and it’s about finding the right driver for the right price for the right trip. And I tried to contact Uber to see if they would deny that that’s what he meant. They based their pay rates based on the prior personal data history of each driver. They didn’t respond to that. I’ve had some people respond to my article by saying that: You know, that it’s not true. They mean something else. But actually, I think that Dara Khosrowshahi’s statement is crystal clear. I don’t really see how you can interpret it in any other way. It’s absolutely clear that they do do this what Professor Veena Dubal’s called algorithmic wage discrimination between different drivers getting the same trip for a different price. 

So that’s how Uber has got there. In terms of what it means for the company’s long-term future. It’s obviously done the share buyback scheme now — they’re trying to boost the share value even more. It looks like Dara Khosrowshahi is going to cash in with his big $50 million bonus. So it’s good news for Dara. But I still don’t think if they continued at the current rates of profits, it would take a long, long, long time for Uber shareholders to make the money back. So I still don’t think the company is some sort of shining example of profitability. I also think that if economic circumstances change, then we’ve already talked about how the macro-economic environment can affect Ubers model. And of course, if the regulations come in which increase the security for drivers, and riders that all affect Uber’s profitability. So I think it’s too early to say Uber’s defeated its critics, or it’s going to be a profitable company for the long-term. Let’s see how it develops over the next few years.

Paris Marx: I obviously completely agree with that. I think just to kind of put it into context for listeners, Uber reported a profit of $1.9 billion USD, of course, in 2023. $1.6 billion of that, as you were saying, comes from equity stakes that it holds in other companies. So the actual profit itself, that it claims to have made is in the $300-ish million mark. And over the past 10 years, it’s burned over $31 billion to fund its model. One of the things that stood out to me is obviously on the one hand, what you were saying about Khosrowshahi’s admission that they are looking at the behavioral patterns of drivers. And I feel like, to me that really sounded like this guy is excited, things are going well, and he accidentally let this slip out or made the proper admission of what the company is actually doing after all this time. But then there’s the other piece of this where I feel like the narrative doesn’t reflect what is actually going on here. And also the actions that Uber is taking, as we were saying the profit is quite small that it actually made after all of this time. And it’s an annual profit, not even a quarterly profit. If it was $300 million quarterly profit, that would be a bit more impressive than for the whole year. Even still not very impressive, but still. 

On top of that, they say that they’ve made this $300 million. But now Khosrowshahi is talking about a $7 billion share buyback. Where is this money coming from? There was the talk of a potential dividend which is not coming for now. It could come in the future. Then of course, since this has happened, he’s been making investments in different companies. He’s been talking up Ubers business in India saying that he wants to massively expand it there. Which is I think going to be a diff called market for them to make very much money in. On one hand, the narrative that Uber is amazing and is doing great, and that it’s doing this massive share buyback, and that it’s making all these investments and growing its business because everything is going great, doesn’t line up to me with: We made $300 million last year. And now that is apparently a big change. I don’t know these things are not working for me.

Ben Wray: I think that with Uber there’s a lot of triumphalism right now, around Uber. There’s a lot in the financial press reporting it and people saying Khosrowshahi is turning the ship around and all that sort of thing. And I think it might be premature to add in one thing about this, because it’s also worth thinking about the wider sector that they’re operating in, food delivery and retail. A lot of the other companies are really struggling still. That does give you an indication that this is a sector where it’s hard to make a lot of money — always traditionally has been. If you take one example, the German multinational Delivery Hero, which has brands like Glovo, Foodpanda in Asia, Foodora in countries like Austria and Sweden, their stock prices hit the floor recently after they announced that they were selling their stake in Delivoo, the British food delivery platform, under the value of those shares because they need to raise money. 

Glovo, one of Delivoo’s main brands who we’ve already spoken about, they are now telling the courts in Spain that they can’t pay their fines for bogus self-employment because they have no money and they’re in extreme financial situation and their parent company, Delivery Hero, has no money. I don’t know why the courts are doing this, but they’re letting them suspend payment of the fine. That’s just to give you an insight into people might think that these sectors somehow out of the woods, and it’s a stable financial situation, not from where I’m looking. In Europe, it’s not, especially in food delivery, I think it’s still not clear to me that app based food delivery is a profitable endeavor. I still think that it’s very, very difficult. So certainly the focus of my reporting on location gig work, like food delivery and retail, it’s still a sector that is financially vulnerable.

Paris Marx: That’s a really good point. And I think that’s helpful to have the European perspective on that because one of the things about the North American market is that it’s so dominated by Uber and what Uber does. Of course, there are a few different delivery platforms, but with ride hailing, the only real alternative is Lyft, for the most part, and they are not doing a particularly well, either. So Uber does really seem to stand out here which kind of backs up the point that the rhetoric that we’re getting about how Uber is doing does not back the reality of how that company is looking. I think part of that relates to just wanting to pump up the share price, wanting to make things look good on paper, in part, so people can get out. So Khosrowshahi’s can get his bonus and be able to take advantage of the stock options that he has. 

But also, I’m sure that there are some investors in there that have been with the company for a long time that see this as an opportunity to finally cash out when the share price is high, because it has gone up significantly in recent months. In particular, since these numbers were reported around it’s quarterly profit. I think the other question I have for you about Uber is really around it’s future-focused endeavors like what it’s trying to do in order to cement its power. One of the things that has always stood out to me and that I feel like has been under-focused on is the growing number of deals that it’s signing with taxi companies around the world in order to bring taxi companies onto its app, and then control the mediation of rides to taxi companies. I wonder what you make of what it’s doing there and the influence that it gives it then over taxi companies in various markets.

Ben Wray: There’s no doubt about it that that’s part of their strategy in Europe now is to bring the taxi sector onto the app. They’ve achieved that in parts of Italy, for example, they’re trying to do that with the UK with the black cabs, I think the black cabs in London are resisting that so far. And this is all part of Uber becoming the transport super app, where you go to Uber, not just for retail or food delivery, but your flights, for anything to do with transport, bus tickets, that’s what they want to sell it as. But to achieve that, certainly in Europe to achieve that, you would have to convince governments to tap into the public sector. Basically municipal local bus services and publicly-owned chain services, which is still most of the continent is still publicly owned, not all of it. They would go onto Uber’s app, and that’s a difficult sell for Uber. From where I’m sitting in Europe, I don’t see the transport super app being realized anytime soon. 

I think the other thing they’re doing in Europe is they’re pushing the idea that Uber’s green, that it’s supporting electric vehicles, reducing carbon emissions. There’s no actual basis for that. In fact there’s good evidence to suggest ridehail is not a very green mode of transport because the cars drive around whilst they’re looking for work and use up petrol. There’s studies to suggest that Uber is less green than if you owned your own car, but they’re trying to push the argument of sustainability with the EU and to get access funds. I think part of Uber’s long-term model is to tap into public infrastructure. And there’s some cases and some parts of Europe where they’re managing to do that, but it’s still a long way off that. I think that is a potential model where Uber could be sustainably profitable in the long term, if they somehow managed to get their hands on public infrastructure. But that’s still an uphill battle.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. The stuff you say around sustainability makes a ton of sense, because we’re seeing that argument in North America as well, where they’re trying to present themselves as green and going electric and all this kind of stuff. And mainly putting the cost of that on the drivers, but making it seem like it’s this great kind of corporate thing that they’re up to. The one other thing I would want to ask you about, as we kind of close this off, is I know that there were a series of strikes recently in Europe. Can you talk to us a bit about what is going on there and what these workers are demanding when they’re going on strike against these companies?

Ben Wray: So it was in the UK, and it’s one of the most remarkable strikes in the gig economy that I’ve seen, and it’s still ongoing. So it began on the second of February, it was the first strike, and there was another big one on Valentine’s Day. There was another one last Friday, the 24th of February, and they say they’re going to continue on every Friday and bank holidays, until not just Uber Eats, but all the food delivery platforms give them a pay raise. One of the remarkable things about it is that it’s completely grassroots organized. So it started with a Brazilian community of riders spread to other communities. But whilst being grassroots organized, it was extremely well-organized. So they had in every locality, they had maps where they looked, where do we want to have pickets? What restaurants do we want to go to? What dark kitchens do we want to shut down? They had a captain in every place to make sure that each locality was well organized, and that sort of thing. 

All this was organized, just through WhatsApp groups, just riders themselves organized themselves in WhatsApp groups and doing it. It was quite remarkable to see that. And the effect of the strike was absolutely huge. So Uber Eats and Deliveroo started offering riders massively higher rates for deliveries, because they were struggling to get a supply. So they were trying to use higher rates with deliveries to break the strike. It was on social media — there was customers complaining they couldn’t access the app. There was evidence that food was piling up in lots of restaurants. So really exciting to see that that a strike in the food delivery sector could be so powerful, just basically seemed to come out of nowhere, and have a real effect on the platforms. And it just shows you that, we’re talking about legislation, talking about employment status, unions and all that. But at the end of the day, all workers need to fight their corner is a lot of determination and a WhatsApp group, or could be Signal, could be on Telegram, whatever, like workers are capable of fighting for their interest, even regardless of what the politicians do.

Paris Marx: Take the digital tools and use them against the bosses of the tech companies that have created them. I think that’s great to hear. And I think it’s a great story to end off this conversation around the defeat of this Platform Work Directive. But we can clearly see that that doesn’t mean that the fight for platform work rights in Europe, including the UK, is over. This will continue to move forward and these actions, like we’ve seen in the UK with these strikes, will be an important part of pushing these companies to do something greater. But hopefully this also means not just having to rely on the workers to do these individual actions, but also forcing governments to finally hold these companies to account if it’s not on the European level than on the national level. In order to make sure that, as you say, that this model that erodes the social fabric and the employment rights that workers have had for a long time is not able to take hold in the way that you know it seems to be working and trying to do so. So, Ben It’s always fantastic to speak with you, to get an update on what’s going on over on your side of the pond. Thanks so much for taking the time. 

Ben Wray: Great to join you, Paris. 

Subscribe to The Nation to Support all of our podcasts

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a tech critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

More from The Nation

x