What does digitalization mean for employees today? What are the challenges workers face, whose work, work price, and working conditions depend on the algorithms that channel and monitor their work and “give” them work ̶ ¬ or “exclude” them from the workplace? These issues were the focus of the final conference of the Digital Danube Network (DiDaNet) project organized by the Federation of Trade Unions of Austria (ÖGB) held on September 30 in Vienna.
The final conference, which discussed working conditions and ways to improve the position of gig workers in the platform economy, was attended by representatives of partner institutions and organizations from Slovenia (Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia ̶ ZSSS, and Trade Union ̶ Mladi Plus), Serbia (the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia ̶ CATUS and TUC “NEZAVISNOST”), Moldova (National Confederation of Trade Unions of Moldova ̶ CNSM) and Ukraine (Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine ̶ FPU).
Digitization of work vs. job flexibility
Digital transformation is one of the most significant events of the 21st century. And, while employers in all sectors invest in the modernization of work processes, employees feel increasing pressure. They face a lack of training offered in the new and vastly different working conditions. For this reason, the Federation of Trade Unions of Austria (ÖGB) seeks to strengthen transnational solidarity by seeking project cooperation to set a course for the necessary involvement of workers and their representatives in social dialogue with employers and the state.
Working on online platforms, part-time (gig) work through applications, trade union organization in atypical forms of work ̶ all these are terms that often go hand in hand with digital transformation and today represent an important topic in the work of trade unions. New types of work have brought new dilemmas and challenges in building partnerships for more dignified working conditions for these workers.
The economy of digital platforms has its say in a growing number of business areas. In European Union countries, as much as 11% of the workforce provides services through platforms ̶ either online or offline, that is, on-site. In Serbia, Ukraine, and Moldova, working through global digital platforms is more represented. Serbia ranks 11th in the world in terms of the number of workers on the platforms per capita, while they work on the location (food delivery and passenger transport) developed just before the pandemic outbreak.
ÖGB Vice President Korinna Schumann pointed out at the conference that digitalization has peaked in the pandemic and that working from home or remotely has imposed itself as a constant option in some sectors. In this context, the question is: How to fight for the protection and promotion of workers’ rights in new conditions?
Trade unions in Europe and the countries of the region are trying to influence the development of the legal framework to avoid an exploitative business model for platform workers both online and on-site.
For those who provide such services, it is often the only source of income. At the same time, organizing work through online platforms challenges previously valid regulations and standards in the world of labor and labor rights, especially when it comes to global platforms. They treat their workers as “self-employed,” thus denying them the protection of a standard employment contract.
In that way, workers are deprived of social, health, and pension insurance, some work “on the black market” while others register as “self-employed.” Algorithms are increasingly in the spotlight due to potential discrimination against workers and non-transparent workforce management.
Such trends pose the question of how workers can engage in social dialogue through their workers’ structures and organizations and how to shape up “digital solidarity” that mobile platform applications often prevent from developing. Also, one of the main challenges is to find ways to avoid social insecurity, which often results from weakness in the negotiation process. In addition to these, the conference also discussed ways to reach vulnerable groups, especially from the migrant population that makes up a large portion of workers on food delivery platforms. Therefore, one of the main topics of the conference was the issue of directing technological progress, which would have positive consequences for all and not only for the few (platform owners). This requires appropriate strategies ̶ the main features of which were discussed with experts from both academia and those with practical insights.
Trade unions from all countries participating in the project (Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, Moldova, and Ukraine) presented the activities and challenges faced by workers and unions related to platform work.
ÖGB presented the “Riders Collective” initiative ̶ a customized offer for young people engaged in food delivery through online platforms. It was concluded that it would be necessary to defend their interests and rights and educate all participants in this digital environment ̶ employers, clients, and workers, with the support of workers’ structures.
Labor law professor Martin Gruber-Risak pointed out that case law has worked more on regulations than legislators themselves in recent years. Workers and the self-employed in the processes with platforms such as Uber in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain, Glovo in Spain, and others have been classified as employees.
Strong trade unions ̶ important in the future
The Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Ludovic Voet, presented the EU Directive on working conditions on digital platforms, the adoption of which is expected by the end of 2021. Its importance can impact workers in terms of organizing, collective bargaining, defending the right to privacy, and setting the work-life balance.
In the last round, with the participation of experts, the conference discussed various dimensions and possible solutions to the digitized and increasingly individualized world of work. Participants agreed that platforms must abide by regulations and laws on fair and dignified work, while the future of work today has to be decided upon only with a strong union. The more those who join the trade union movement, the stronger and more effective the participation and defense of their rights will be.
The context on platform work in Serbia
Serbia takes 11th position in the world regarding the number of platform workers per capita and 3rd in Europe. This trend has been present in last few years but has been further intensified by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia in mid-March 2020. The curfew and global lockdown increased the number of people in Serbia looking for online jobs, on digital platforms, or employers offering a possibility of remote work.
With the onset of the pandemic, the need for jobs involving the delivery of food and other goods increased, which has led to a substantial expansion of mobile applications for food delivery through which companies such as Glovo, Wolt, and Donesi operate. They have expanded their work to larger urban areas in Serbia, primarily Novi Sad, Niš, and Pančevo.
Such an increase in the volume of work on online platforms and mobile applications is not followed by an appropriate legislative framework, which brings with it certain consequences, but at the same time the necessity of establishing a social dialogue to articulate the interests of workers.
As a result, platform workers on online platforms from Serbia organized protests under the leadership of their organizations ̶ primarily the largest one, the Association of Online Workers (URI). This association was formed principally to voice the requests of platform workers, who faced the demands of the Tax Administration of Serbia to collect employment tax liabilities many Internet workers were unfamiliar with, which represents excessive tax burden to such insecure work engagement.
After months of dialogue between URI and representatives of the Government and the Ministry of Finance, consultations of URI and social partners, especially trade unions, protest camping in front of the Serbian Parliament, negotiations ended with an interim agreement on how to tax part-time income of platform freelancers.
At the same time, there were several small internal strikes on food delivery platforms when some of the workers came into contact with the unions, but there were no mass protests whatsoever.
The Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia and TUC “NEZAVISNOST” established a connection with the Association of Internet Workers (URI) and supported their actions and demands, while the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also supported the demands of URI.
As part of the DiDaNet project, the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia and TUC “NEZAVISNOST” organized DigiDay in May 2021, which was a kind of “Open Day” for platform workers on both types of platforms.
Networking and cooperation have been established with partner organizations and experts in relevant fields through the Danube@Work and DiDaNet projects to raise awareness on improving the rights of platform workers. The project initiated the development of solidarity among workers in traditional sectors and those in flexible forms of work. The Association of Online Workers supported the struggle of union headquarters to increase the minimum wage. Several events and joint activities were held as part of the project with the exchange of views and ideas that could improve the status of platform workers, as well as ETUC coaching sessions and consultations of the EU social partners on the working conditions of digital platforms and workers who earn income through them.
New communication channels have been opened (articles on the websites of TUC “NEZAVISNOST” and CATUS and their social networks), and the dialogue with the public about new forms of work has been made more significant.