Aware of the increasingly intense decline of workers’ and social rights brought on by the flexibilization of work, the United Branch Trade Unions “Independence” (UGS NEZAVISNOST) and the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia (SSSS), in cooperation with the Serbian Association of Employers, organized a panel discussion on May 19, 2021, called DigiDay – Open Day, gathering representatives of relevant organizations and experts, but also workers engaged on platforms.
The talks on the position and status of workers engaged on platforms and the possibility to exercise labour rights, including the right to organize and represent their collective interests, as well as the legislative framework governing the field of work and the possibility for this precarious work to find its place in adequate legislation and become more dignified applying that regulation were initiated by the following panellists:
- Duško Vuković, Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia (SSSS),
- Zoran Stojiljković, United Branch Trade Unions “Independence” (UGS NEZAVISNOST),
- Ljiljana Pavlović, Serbian Association of Employers,
- Miran Pogačar, Association of Internet Workers,
- Branka Anđelković, Public Policy Research Centre,
- Mario Reljanović, The Institute of Comparative Law,
- Blaž Gyoha, ÖGB – a trade union headquarters representative from Austria.
Workers engaged on platforms (outside of standard employment contracts) also participated at the meeting. They were interested in exchanging information to identify common and specific problems, discuss potential solutions and opportunities to improve their position in the labour market.
DigiDay was organized within the DiDaNet project, implemented by UGS NEZAVISNOST, SSSS and UPS in cooperation with trade unions’ headquarters from Austria, Slovenia, Ukraine, and Moldova, with the financial support of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Health and Consumer Protection. Aleksandra Vitorović and Bojana Bijelović Bosanac, who coordinate activities within the DiDaNet project in Serbia, moderated the discussion.
The fact that this is the second project on digitalization and increasingly flexible forms of work carried out by UGS NEZAVISNOST and SSSS in cooperation with the trade union headquarters in Austria shows that unions are aware of the consequences of the unregulated position of workers on the internet and the need to participate in solving the problems of these workers based on solidarity principles.
Why is it important to discuss the position of workers in Serbia working through platforms?
A simple answer to this question was offered at the very beginning of the discussion by Duško Vuković from the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia, who pointed out the size of this labour force in Serbia, which, along with Ukraine, Romania, Moldova and Northern Macedonia, belongs to the world’s top of platform workers. Despite various myths about the benefits of such work, research by the Public Policy Research Centre and recent protests by internet workers across Serbia have shown that a large number of these people are in a precarious position, except for a small group of those registered as entrepreneurs with access to health and social care. Zoran Stojiljković from UGS NEZAVISNOST reminded of the fact that this type of economy does not account for the preparation for a task, but pays strictly controlled, supervised, terribly exhausting and frustrating work, where only “a piece of work done” gets paid. Nobody thinks about the preparation, about the previous knowledge and skills brought into the work. With the pandemic outbreak due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus, another group of precarious platform workers became visible in Serbia, those who work through mobile applications for food delivery and passenger transport. For the first time, their problems were explored in a new study by the Center and through the “Machine” portal articles. “Our workers who work on these platforms – if it is their permanent work engagement – work about 60 hours a week, they do not have insurance in case of an accident, and do not have the right to paid sick leave and paid vacation. All that is a cost that goes out of their pocket,” said Branka Anđelković from the Public Policy Research Centre.
In short, both groups of workers, to a greater or lesser extent, are characterized by the impossibility of exercising the rights arising from the Decent Work Agenda of the International Labour Organization – 8 hours of work, the right to decent wages, access to health social protection, the right to occupational safety and trade union organizing and advocating. This is a particular problem because in Serbia, as union representatives and labour law experts have pointed out, the current Labour Law only recognizes employees with a standard employment contract and employers in the traditional sense, which platforms are not. Hence, although Serbia has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 87 and 98, which guarantee the freedom of association to all workers, which further implies their introduction into national legislation, in Serbia, this right is exercised only by employees, that is, those with a signed employment contract – not other workers. This practically deprives a growing army of workers in non-standard forms of work of the possibility of trade union association and protection.
From the unions’ point of view, dealing with the position of workers on platforms is important for several reasons; first, due to the increase in flexible forms of work engaging a quarter of the workforce in Serbia, including part-time workers in the platform/gig economy. In this regard, the question arises: can trade unions manage to be what the Labour Law does not allow them to be at the moment – to represent the interests of all working people?
An additional key issue pointed out in the discussion is “codification,” i.e. treatment and classification of workers on platforms as workers or self-employed, i.e. entrepreneurs.
The third highlighted issue was how to define the other contracting party in the employment relationship, given that it (an employer) is often anonymous, not disclosed and often on another continent.
“We cannot do that effectively without an international social and trade union network. Without that solidarity, we cannot reach those people; we cannot approach them. We cannot do without a manifesto of work and minimum standards defined that are financial, social and other nature related to the work process,” said Zoran Stojiljković, president of UGS NEZAVISNOST.
Who is an employer, and are workers really workers or entrepreneurs?
However, the key to these dilemmas is whether workers in these forms of work are forced or voluntarily self-employed. Speaking of this, it is important to understand “algorithmic management,” i.e. potential subordination as the basis for determining employment status.
There were three standpoints related to this dilemma: first, if workers working on internet platforms are a heterogeneous group and whether they feel like entrepreneurs or as workers regarding their employment rights having in mind if their platform job is their main job or a secondary and occasional one. To a lesser extent, the same applies to delivery workers who work through mobile delivery applications with more straightforward elements for determining their status.
Trade unions, researchers, and experts believe that it is very important for these workers to exercise their social rights and have the right to pension and union activities. “However, what we learn from these workers is that they do not believe in the achievability of these goals and the principles of dignified work,” said Branka Anđelković from the Public Policy Research Center. What motivates these workers to work on platforms is relatively decent income and the flexibility they appreciate, despite working 60 hours a week. Also, they believe it is very easy to enter that particular labour market as platforms are absolutely non-discriminatory. “For workers working through mobile delivery apps, at this point, the only thing that matters is that they have compensation in the event of an accident during delivery and that they don’t have to pay parking fines, and that’s about it.”
While interlocutors from trade unions, the research community, and labour law experts favour the idea that the rights of these workers should be dealt with through the Labour Law, the representative of the Serbian Association of Employers, Ljiljana Pavlović, advocated that workers on online platforms should be helped by reducing their tax duties facilitating the conditions for starting and developing their businesses. “The status and position of digital workers must certainly be regulated in some way, but in order to be able to seriously locate some key recommendations in that direction, we first need to understand the needs of people working on platforms, and among them, there are those who really do not want to have that kind of organization that looks like work engagement. They simply want to decide independently when they will work, who they will work with, how much they will work, which is far from what standard employment is, and then it is very difficult to put these people in such a framework. In that sense, we suggest that we “legalize” all those who want to determine when, how much and with whom they will work, in some way, through the establishment of their own entrepreneurial businesses,” said Pavlović.
Further in the course of the discussion, there were talks about the options that would potentially be adopted by the announced Law on Flexible Forms of Work and European practices that also manoeuvre around this dilemma – an entrepreneur, self-employed or worker.
Miran Pogačar, president of the Association of Internet Workers (URI), said the heterogeneity of online workers, some of whom felt like entrepreneurs and others like workers, made it difficult to formulate a common position for all members at a time when the Tax Administration threatened to charge them taxes for the previous five years. Slogans supporting unity were backed up by people who feel like workers and those who would rather be entrepreneurs, those for whom it is their main job and others for whom working on the internet is an additional or occasional job. This also made it difficult to come up with an acceptable solution for all in the long run. While the URI management thinks that it is most important for internet workers to be recognized in the Labour Law and for their tax duties to be harmonized with the fact that they are, according to the current legal solution, obliged to pay taxes both as employees and employers, for the Government of Serbia, in Pogačar’s opinion, the decision to absolve them of part of the tax debt was only a temporary pact after which freelancers are expected to register as entrepreneurs or limited liability companies. “Our position as an organization guided by trade union principles was primarily that the status of workers who work over the internet must be in accordance with their rights,” said Pogačar. With that ambition, URI entered the working group for drafting the Law on Flexible Forms of Work, which should be passed by the beginning of 2022.
What is there to expect from the Law on Flexible Forms of Work?
Professor Mario Reljanović expressed his fear that the law on flexible work will be introduced on a small scale, without changes to the Labour Law. If you look at the results of the negotiations between the Government of Serbia and URI on the taxation of freelancers from that point of view, it seems that “practically, it is coercion aimed at motivating online workers to become entrepreneurs,” but then the question arises what happens to those who earn “little enough” and cannot afford it.
“We need a substantial change, which can only come through the Labour Law which is to channel workers back to the Labour Law, as well as to channel the issue of workers in terms of the definition of workers, that is, everyone who invests their work must exercise some basic work rights. Today’s division into employment and working without an employment contract is meaningless and quite unique in legislation in general – both in the world and in Europe and, of course – unrecognized, even in the European Union, which will have to change,” said Reljanović.
“National legislation in several European countries provides examples for resolving the status of workers who work through mobile delivery applications, but not workers on the internet whose employer is not registered and has no assets in the Republic of Serbia,” said Reljanović.
At the European level, there has been a public debate for several years on the legal framework for regulating work on platforms and within EU institutions. An example of this action is the EU Directive 2019/1152 on transparent and predictable working conditions in the EU, hinting that platform workers must be considered employees if certain criteria are fulfilled. The second so-called Regulation 2019/1150 promoting fairness and transparency for business users of online intermediation service is directly related to the operation of platforms. However, it only covers the self-employed providing services to consumers, which means that the basic problem of poor working conditions in the platform economy remains unresolved at the European level, said Blaž Gyoha of the ÖGB union headquarters in Austria. For their part, unions are getting increasingly involved in supporting these workers, so the ÖGB provides support to deliverers through mobile food delivery apps and space where they can meet and organize themselves.
He pointed out that there is a draft regulation on platform work, with a key provision that a worker on a platform should be treated as an employee, unless they state otherwise – as well as that the burden of proving the relationship between platforms and workers is on platforms. Another idea of this Draft concerns legal clarification of the place of work. Other issues proposed to be regulated are the obligation of equal pay, legal clarification that the time of daily job search on virtual platforms and time spent on standby should be considered working hours, the prohibition of restricting competition during and after activities on platforms, and unjustified account disabling or unknown (unidentified) deactivations of user accounts on platforms.
However, many European countries tend to classify platform workers as “self-employed,” except in France, Spain and some areas of Italy, where courts often contribute to exposing the argument that the platform economy is so new and innovative that it does not fit into existing regulations and that all platform workers are self-employed.
Decisions concerning the reclassification of platforms as employers and delivery workers or drivers as employees (from traditional labour law) are not only an important step for those working in the platform economy but also for establishing new definitions of employers and workers and/or employees.
“The European Union does not insist on a unified solution for all member states, but rather suggests a framework, and it is up to social partners at the national level, practically, to provide a model through negotiations and agreements that would lead to a guaranteed corpus of labour and social rights for all workers/employees through the drafting and implementation of national legislation,” pointed out Aleksandra Vitorović from UGS NEZAVISNOST. This was also pointed out by DigiDay participants from Serbia and the region, who sent questions to the speakers or commented throughout the discussion. For example, Natalija Havelka from the Center for Peace in Osijek pointed out that the issue of platform work is not legally regulated in Croatia and that a proposal to amend the Labour Law is currently being prepared, so it is assumed that the public debate will offer possibilities for resolving this issue. In that context, the opinion of the European Commission, which launched a new round of consultations with the social partners on resolving this issue in January this year, is expected to be especially important.
Several freelancers from the audience asked whether platform/gig workers are closer to employees or entrepreneurs and stated that there is a tendency of the state for freelancers to be “pushed” into the status of entrepreneurs at any cost. “On the contrary, I don’t want to be an entrepreneur; I just want to work normally and make a living from it,” said one freelancer.
What is the solution for Serbia?
What are the potential solutions that could be offered in the future, what are the necessary steps that could lead us to a solution, what are the actors that could implement those steps, or that would help us reach that goal?
For Reljanović, the most important thing is that there is a possibility of choice for workers on platforms. “Will they be directed towards self-employment or will they be qualified as employees, or will we, perhaps, design the third form or be the first country with an intermediate form – which are neither entrepreneurs nor employed, but are characterized by lower contribution rates, with fewer benefits from social security, remains still to be decided,” said Reljanović.
“From our research position, we would say that workers who work in this digital economy are workers. One of the arguments is that by pushing them into an entrepreneurial environment, all costs are transferred to workers, regardless of whether they are workers on the internet or workers in a geography in which Serbia is now located. And for that really simple reason, we believe that the only right way is to consider the possibility of introducing the term “independent worker,” which has been adopted by some other countries,” said Branka Anđelković from the Center and announced that this research institution will soon come out with the first estimate of the number of workers on the internet from Serbia.
Duško Vuković from SSSS and Zoran Stojiljković from UGS NEZAVISNOST stated that the unions, together with platform workers’ representatives, will participate in creating economic policies through the adoption of laws, whose goal should be a complete change of philosophy and tax system so that solutions are more favourable to strengthening solidarity and protecting labour and social rights.
“We have over-exploited workers who are hired for very little money in extremely flexible forms and who need some kind of union or quasi-union organization. We have a large number of people who want to regulate their labour rights and contractual obligations, both tax and social ones, for which unions are competent organizations, but also state bodies that want to reduce those risks of self-employment. Also, we need to see if there is really some room for organization within the employers’ union,” said Zoran Stojiljković, emphasizing that “we must find some kind of labour or social regulation jointly while adhering to the European framework, as well as corrections of national legislation which is the obligation of the countries in the process of the EU accession.”
Miran Pogačar from URI also agreed that a joint fight with the unions is needed, not only in Serbia but at the international level too. However, he said that the state is not a good partner for both platform and “off-platform” workers. URI is considering establishing its own platform for work and organization under its own – better conditions than offered by foreign platforms to represent the interests of workers and work security.
While closing DigiDay, Aleksandra Vitorović and Bojana Bijelović Bosanac, coordinators of the DiDaNet project in Serbia, emphasized the importance of broader and timely discussions on the issues brought up by the gathering and called on the participants to continue cooperation in the search for comprehensive solutions that would make precarious work on platforms more dignified.