Spanish workers´ rights activists are hailing a recent vote in the European parliament as a major step towards enhancing the rights of some of the most poorly paid and vulnerable workers across the bloc. It is estimated that as many as 28 million people are employed in the digital platform sector, including more than a million in Spain alone, delivering and driving for the likes of Uber, Just Eat and Deliveroo.
The proposals aim to extend basic rights, such as sick pay and holiday entitlements, to workers denied them under what critics describe as “fake self-employment contracts”. It also proposes to regulate the algorithms that control operative´s work life, and curtail the ability of companies to use accumulated data for “discriminatory ends”.
The plan received a resounding thumbs up from the European parliament last month, passing by 376 votes to 212, and is another rebuke to platform companies who have long argued that their workers are essentially self employed.
It follows a series of landmark court rulings in recent years, establishing the employment rights of gig economy workers, from the UK and Spain to the Netherlands and California.
A response to platform companies “running rings around everyone by playing games with contracts and claiming a false new paradigm for modern work where the old rules do not apply”, according to James Farrar, head of the non-profit workers info exchange, which supported a successful UK supreme court challenge to Ubers´ employment practices in 2021.
The reaction from companies to such rulings has been mixed. Food delivery giant, Just Eat, responded by offering its workers secure contacts and hourly wages, whereas Uber and Lyft used their financial muscle to help pass ballot measure, proposition 22, exempting them from labour laws in the state of California.
Their desire to see a similar exemption apply across the European Union has been dealt a serious blow by parliament´s vote.
Moncloa inspired reforms
The inspiration for the EU proposal stems from a law introduced in Spain last year by minister for labour Yolanda Diaz, in the wake of a Spanish supreme court ruling that designated riders for food delivery app, Glovo, as employees and not freelancers.
The so called “riders law” recognises platform operatives as formal, salaried workers, automatically extending the range of social protections and benefits their companies must provide. It passed through the Spanish parliament in the teeth of fierce resistance from the main right wing opposition Popular Party, who also voted against the Europe wide proposals.
Diaz´s party, Unidas Podemos, junior partner in Spains´s coalition government and the driving force behind the law, point to a doubling of secure contracts across the sector in the six months since the law was enacted, and are keen to see it rolled out across the EU.
María Polop, an MEP for the party hailed the vote as “a clear message in defense of the most vulnerable”.
An initial measure along similar lines was rejected back in December 2022 by eight member countries, including Spain, for failing to properly tackle chronic insecurity in the sector. Though last month´s vote in favour of beefed up proposals is an important win for advocates, it is only the first step in a long process.
As with any EU wide measure, getting agreement on a unified approach from all 27 member states can be a torturous process. Having passed the first hurdle, the proposed directive will now be subject to tripartite negotiations between the European parliament, the commission and the council of ministers.
It may spend months or even years in process, and undergo changes, before being enacted across the bloc.
However, its supporters are hopeful that Spain´s six month presidency of the EU, which begins in July, will help to expedite the measure and see it come into force as early as 2024.
John Boyce is an Irish journalist based in Spain, writing about politics, history and culture.