On Labour Day, let’s demand a reset: Workers’ Rights 2.0

1 May 2017

On Labour Day, let’s demand a reset: Workers’ Rights 2.0

Today, May 1st, it is once again Labour Day, when we celebrate workers’ rights, or if you prefer, the rights of working people. Yet things aren’t going so well for these rights. Despite all the fine words, the European Union has spent the last few decades actively participating in the erosion of these rights, while there are now, furthermore, numerous new challenges. One subject of current debate in the European Parliament is the digital market. This offers excellent new opportunities, but there is a downside: workforces the world over are being played off against each other via so-called crowdworking platforms, and people are being redefined as self-employed and exploited in the ‘sharing economy’ by groups such as Uber. Little attention is paid to any of this in Brussels, while we badly need ‘labour rights 2.0’ to be maintained in the time of digitalisation.

Last year the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) raised the alarm about the new phenomenon of ‘crowdworking platforms’. For work not linked to a specific location, such as administrative tasks or IT, there are now websites, known as platforms, which bring together supply and demand. In reality these are simply the new gangmasters. Because this is work for which you do not have to be in your country, no immigration laws apply and anyone and everyone can sign up. The ‘self-employed’ from low wage countries always win in what is a digital race to the bottom.

That’s not all. I recently read a report on the new ‘sharing economy’. ‘Sharing economy’ sounds great, and it certainly can be, when for example people offer their services to each other in a modern form of barter. But at the same time a great deal of money has been invested in professional platforms where the self-employed can offer their services. This might appear to be the last word in freedom, and in some cases this was originally the case, but take a look at ‘Amazon Mechanical Turk’: offering your services obliges you to be available 24/7. Refuse a potential client and you’ll slip down the ranking and be consequently less visible. The same goes if a client isn’t happy with the services you’ve provided. In a very short while you become a slave to the platform: no freedom, but precisely the lack of freedom, a lack renewed each day.

Labour Day is important, not only for waged workers, but also for the new generation of self-employed men and women. They too have a right to a decent income, to sickness and unemployment benefits, to a pension. You’re not going to get any of that any time soon from one of these platforms. Nor from the European Commission. We have to find ways for this new group of workers to organise and to demand their rights in their turn, just as workers did a century ago.

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