Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
26 May 2021

The platform economy – time for more democracy at work

Commentary by Maria Mexi

The pandemic's evolution has demonstrated the platform economy's growing significance in providing essential services to local communities, while also highlighting the intrinsic vulnerabilities and precarity experienced by platform workers. As the platform economy is expanding in size and importance, uncertainty around what to expect remains.

Before the pandemic, as part of a SNIS-funded research project, we conducted fieldwork in four European countries (Switzerland, Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom) on the conditions experienced by workers in the platform economy and social partners' responses. In consistency with extant literature, we found that the prevailing contingent and non-standard work arrangements found in the platform economy have exacerbated power imbalances between workers and employers in the digital labour market. In all four countries, workers reported (to varying degrees) that the platform economy has exacerbated worker exploitation, which stems from freeriding practices and mindsets, embedded deep within the way digital platforms operate. Since the launch of the platform economy a decade ago, the platform companies at its heart have faced severe criticism over inadequate employment protections (unfair work), freeriding on conventional businesses (unfair competition) and inadequate consumer protection. The pandemic has further exposed this dark side. During the early lockdowns, digital platforms successfully externalized responsibilities on to governments for financial support and on to platform workers for their own protection. Some have even increased surveillance of workers during the pandemic—with the potential this will become 'normalized' in its aftermath.

Our fieldwork has also confirmed another strong argument raised in the literature – namely, that platform workers feel they are losing the voice necessary to enforce their social welfare and employment rights. Platform workers' capacity to organize and build collective voice is being increasingly questioned by the general weakening of industrial relations in many countries, and a tendency towards the individualization  of  employment  relationships. Concurrently, platform workers face some unique barriers when it comes to building collective agency and voice. During rapid economic and labour market changes in the past, workers have formed labour organizations to advocate for their needs and interests. But, that organizing often presumed ''a single employer, a single workplace, and a set of duties and obligations that can be structured around a contract that stays in place for several years'' . In the platform economy, given the moves away from full-time work and direct employment, these factors are no longer explicitly relevant. Another important factor complicating the capacity for organizing is the disparity of work performed by different segments of the platform economy workforce across various platforms. Platform workers are often tied to a multitude of platforms which translates into starkly heterogeneous worker motivations, experiences and claims that constrain capacity to leverage effective collective action and representation of interests. In addition to these, the fact that platform companies do not generally want to be viewed as ''employers'' further complicates the picture, since it raises questions as to who is to be bargained with.

Reduced bargaining power combined with excessive surveillance through algorithmic controls, effectively undermines the freedom the firms tout and their workers desire, while further reinforcing workers' inability to influence their working environment. Overall, these findings reinforce Polanyi-inspired accounts of the platform economy in the literature stressing that, due to its dis-embedding in institutional interventions (particularly social welfare and strong trade unions), labour in the platform economy is increasingly being re-commodified, a process which intensifies the disciplinary power of labour market competition.

Mobilizing and organizing collectively when work is digital, discontinuous and globally dispersed poses certain challenges to building representation and voice. Yet, all Uber or Deliveroo workers should have the right to unionize, claim their rights, and gain control over their work. On the positive side, despite undeniable difficulties,  new initiatives are being developed by trade unions to adapt to the changing conditions of platform work by opening membership for platform workers, forming new initiatives and unions, or negotiating collective agreements with platform companies. Such efforts need to be strengthened and sustained, while the concept of democratizing platform companies and the platform economy should be given serious attention and reflection.

As demands for more ‘democracy at work’ are escalating, collective bargaining and social dialogue are increasingly seen as part of the solution. Empirical evidence shows  that co-ordinated  bargaining  systems  are linked with less wage inequality and higher employment levels. Whether considering issues of workplace adjustment to the use of new technologies or job quality, workers’ representation and voice arrangements and collective bargaining constitute key tools enabling governments and social partners to find and agree on fair and tailored solutions. Furthermore, due to its deliberative and reconciliation-building attributes, social dialogue can play a positive role especially in suggesting venues for tackling the more problematic aspects of platform work in mutually beneficial (for both platforms and workers) – and therefore sustainable – ways. This may involve effectively addressing cases where power imbalances between platforms and platform workers are likely to arise by, for instance: enforcing the correct classification of workers and fighting misclassification; promoting transparency and fair treatment in working conditions; enabling access to social protection, training opportunities, occupational health and safety, and; by tackling the problems of algorithmic discrimination and data transparency and justice as workers’ demands for data compensation are likely to become one of the most confrontational issues with platforms in the years to come.  In this context, mobilization on the part of social partners—which have valuable, sector-specific knowledge—is vital to level the playing-field, by bringing pressure for more fine-tuned regulation or by pushing digital platforms to come to the negotiation table. All this requires, on one hand, global trade union co-operation and, on the other, country-specific action.

In a nutshell, for platform workers in unbalanced power relationships, social dialogue, worker organizing, the development of agency, voice and representation, and its expression through collective bargaining, are the surest way of achieving a more inclusive future of platform work.

This was recently confirmed by the work of major international organizations (OECD, ILO) as well as by European Commission's initiative to engage social partners in discussions on how to regulate platform work. More research and policy action would help shape future momentum, setting in place national or global frameworks for structured dialogue and collective bargaining between governments, platform business and workers, as part of a broader strategy to democratize the platform economy as a whole - from its governance to the ability of individual workers to organize and make decisions together about their work.


This article has been written for the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s series of commentaries on the need to redesign the platform economy on a more democratic and sustainable basis.

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