Uber could give gig workers a better deal but it’s lobbying EU to lower standards, says Fairwork

Uber has been accused of downplaying its influence over working conditions in the gig economy after the ride-hailing giant published a white paper earlier this week in which it lobbied for a ‘Prop 22’ style deregulation of Europe’s labor laws.

Fairwork, an academic research project that benchmarks gig platforms against a set of fairness principles to  encourage these intermediaries to improve conditions for workers, said today that Uber’s call for special rules for the gig economy is an attempt to “legitimize a lower level of protection for platform workers than most European workers benefit from.”

“Uber asserts that it recognizes the need for improved conditions but is dependent on regulatory change to realize that goal. The company’s recognition of dissatisfaction among drivers is commendableHowever, it is already well within their locus of control to address this dissatisfaction and improve conditions for its drivers under existing legal frameworks,” the platform work research group wrote in a response to Uber’s ‘Better Deal‘ white paper. 

Uber’s focus on policy change, furthermore, downplays the company’s significant influence over conditions in the gig economy. By calling for new regulations, the company is shifting responsibility for workers’ conditions to other actors, when it could step up to the plate and provide an exemplar of how a platform can treat its workers.” 

“Whilst we applaud Uber’s awareness of the need for change, we urge them to live up to their call,” Fairwork added. “The company has long set the blueprint for the gig economy, and, perhaps more than any other actor, is positioned to enact immediate change to improve the lives of their workers under current legal frameworks.

Fairwork noted that Uber has repeatedly fallen short of its (independent) benchmarks of ‘fair’ platform work. (NB: We covered the start of its initiative here back in 2019).

As we reported earlier this week, Uber is pushing for a ‘Prop 22’-style outcome in Europe, following its win in California last year when it convinced voters to exempt delivery and transport platform workers from employment classification laws — and as regional lawmakers are actively looking at how to improve the lot of gig workers.

In the white paper Uber has fired at EU lawmakers it argues that conditions for gig workers can only improve if regulators grant platforms a carve out from labor laws — lobbying for what it dubbed a “new standard” for gig work. However Fairwork argues this a blatant attempt to water down European employment standards, as Uber seeks to apply the same playbook it successfully deployed to reconfigure Californian legislation in its business interests.

Yet Europe is not California. And as Fairwork points out courts across the region have begun to roll back self-serving classifications of gig workers as ‘self-employed’ — with a number of these challenges going against Uber in recent years.

A major verdict is also looming for Uber Friday when the UK Supreme Court is expected to give the last word on an employment tribunal which it has been losing since 2016.

“The white paper reproduces the strategy taken by Uber in California where, after the state introduced new regulation that would have extended employee benefits to platform workers, they and several other prominent platforms successfully pushed for a watered-down alternative,” said Fairwork, noting that platforms (Uber and Lyft) spent some $200M persuading voters in California to back their ballot measure (“which exempted delivery and transport platform workers from classification laws in exchange for stripped-back versions of workplace benefits that have already been shown to be inadequate”, as the group tells it). 

“It is no surprise to see the company extending this strategy to Europe shortly in advance of a February 19 ruling in a UK Supreme Court case challenging the classification of drivers and the European Commission’s consultation with workers and employer representatives to inform gig economy regulation on February 24,” Fairwork also said, calling for regional lawmakers to engage with a process to strengthen and expand existing labor protections rather than get on board with Uber’s drive to lower European standards. 

“All workers, regardless of how their work is arranged, deserve decent wages and safe working conditions. Laboulaw provides these basic rights; and work arranged via a platform does not require a radical new approach. The benefits proposed in Uber’s white paper, like those provided under Proposition 22, represent weakened versions of those afforded to employees,” it added.

“We need to strengthen and expand existing labour protections in order to improve conditions, not create additional exclusions and exemptions that leave millions behind.” 

We’ve reached out to Uber for any comment. Update: An Uber spokesperson said: “We welcome all views on this important topic. We must now work together to deliver a better deal for platform workers in Europe.”

It also told us it’s not lobbying to copypaste Prop 22 to Europe but does believe some of the same principles could be applied as regional lawmakers look at ways to improve the deal gig workers get — reiterating its view that a level playing field will be essential to delivering the kind of standardized improvements it’s pushing for.

The European Commission has yet to decide what kind of regulatory intervention it might make as regards gig work. But it has signalled an intention to do something in this area — and that’s likely been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighting the individual and public health risks when gig workers lack employment protections like sick pay.

In a 2019 mission letter, the EU president told the incoming jobs commissioner to look at ways to improve the lot of platform workers, writing that: “Dignified, transparent and predictable working conditions are essential to our economic model.”