Left MEP Leila Chaibi joins Cross-Border Talks to discuss the European directive on platform workers which, if accepted, could be a great step forward in the fight against exploitation of the most vulnerable individuals. People working for Uber, Glovo or Deliveroo are, in fact, not ‘independent entrepreneurs’ as the platforms prefer to claim, and the question of their employment status was a central issue during the political discussion. Leila Chaibi, who stood for workers’ rights during the entire process, explains how the directive was worked out, how it was discussed, and how different platform lobbies did a lot to stop it. Even if the directive gained the minimal support in the end (after recording the episode), the whole story shows how powerful pro-business lobbies are in Brussels and how far we still are from an ideal of pro-citizen, pro-social Europe.

The entire transcription of the recording is available below.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome, everybody, to another episode of Cross-border Talks, which I host together with Veronica Susova-Salminen. Our today’s guest Leila Chaibi is a member of the European Parliament, member of the Left group in the European Parliament. And the topic we are going to discuss is the Platform Workers Directive, the directive which was unfortunately rejected in February this year, which in our view is a big step backwards in the construction of social Europe, an Europe that is more a community of solidarity, than community of competitiveness [after publishing this episode, the directive was finally accepted]. ‘Platform work’ may still seem exotic as a term to some of our listeners, but I am sure you actually know very well what we are talking about. If you think about how many people use bicycles for food delivery, how many Uber cars have you seen on the streets of virtually every major European city, and not just European. We are going to discuss the law that was supposed to give, I am sure, not only basic labour rights to people employed in the sector. It was supposed to give them a sense of dignity and security. It puts a big question mark over the whole effort to make Europe a Europe for people and not just for business. Leila, welcome to the programme. I’m glad to have you with us.

Leila Chaibi: Hello, everybody. Thank you for the invitation.

I would like to start by asking you about the process of drafting the Platform Workers Directive. Who are the forces that tried to support these people, to what extent was the European Left involved, and to what extent were the platform workers themselves able to influence the process?

The legislative process on the platform directive started almost five years ago, and it was a long process. On one hand, you had a lobby which is very powerful in Brussels and especially Uber lobby with some some countries as allies. Unfortunately Macron, the French president, was one of the biggest allies. On the other hand, in this balance of power, in the whole legislative process, there were workers themselves and the progressive forces in the European Parliament.

The European Parliament doesn’t have the right of initiative. We are the only parliament in the world which is not allowed to write the first draft of the directive or the legislative proposal. We have to push, we have to urge and we have to ask the European Commission to do it. In 2019, in the European Parliament, we first heard the President of the European Commission saying that we were going to work on during the legislature. What I first heard was that she, Ursula von der Leyen, said that we were going to work on a legislative proposal on platform work. But at the moment that didn’t mean that we were going to have a directive. It even meant that we were going to have a directive saying that we need a presumption of employment, a relationship. My aim and the aim of all the progressive forces in the European Parliament was to have a directive saying that platform workers must have the presumption of an employment relationship. On the other hand, you had the lobby also listening to Ursula von der Leyen. They thought: OK, very good, very good, we were going to have a directive saying that you could have a certain status between the status of employment and the status of self-employment, and this status is going to allow us to have people, workers, in a subordinate relationship. Workers that you can control, you can sanction, you can give directions to without having to pay the social protection of any worker, without having to respect labour law or collective bargaining. That was the idea, because you have workers all over Europe. They are supposed to be self-employed. I am speaking now of Uber drivers, they are, uh, drivers for Deliveroo, Uber Eats. They are theoretically self-employed, but they cannot decide on their work’s price or how they work. They say ‘They can cut me off, which means fire. They can fire me without a word from a human being’. So what do they do? They go to court. What the judge says? He says, OK, you’re supposed to be self-employed, but you’re not self-employed. The platform has to reclassify, you have to be reclassified with the employment status. The platforms are fed up with all this. And when they listened to Ursula von der Leyen in 2019, they said, OK, very good. Because, as usual, the European Union is going to make a political decision more in favour of the lobby than in favour of the workers. It was seen as an opportunity.

But the balance of power between them and us changed and things didn’t happen as they said. If you are interested in the legislative proposal… first of all we had to fight for a good proposal from the European Commission and we managed to do it in December 2021. The European Commission and especially Nicholas Schmidt, the Commissioner of Employment, published a proposal that said that platform workers had to have the presumption of employment relationship. It was a first victory for us. We managed to have the European Commission with us, and then the European Parliament with us, and then 23 member states out of 27. We built a kind of alternative lobbying.

We’re talking about workers. They don’t have an employment contract. They are alone on their bicycle or in their car. It’s even difficult to organise in every country. But we managed to build up a kind of alternative lobbying, to bring them to Brussels, to give them the opportunity to talk to each other and to build up a kind of force and to put pressure on the legislative process. That’s how we managed to win the balance of power in front of the lobby and to win several steps. But unfortunately it’s very difficult now. This is the end of the process. We managed to have an agreement in December in the Trilogue, which is an agreement between the European Parliament and the Council with the Commission. The first agreement in December was rejected by the Council, which is something very unusual when you have an agreement in the Trilogue. We sat againt to negotiations and with the Belgian Presidency on the 8th of February, we had another or second agreement in the Trilogue. It was very watered down, but it was still something that was going to improve the lives of the workers. But it still wasn’t enough for our enemy in this story, because what they really want is a directive, not just a watered down directive, but a directive that doesn’t improve workers’ lives at all. They want a directive that is pro-Uber. They want a directive that makes the process of classification for the worker even worse!

Ten days ago, 15 days ago [the talk was recorded at the beginning of March], the Council rejected it again. But in a situation where you had 23 member states that agreed to it, we have one last chance. On March 11, we have a meeting with the labour ministers of all the European Union. So it will be on a political level. Last time it was the ambassadors’ level. We win, if we manage to convince only one member state. And we are thinking in particular of Estonia. If we manage to convince Estonia about the agreement of 8 February, the directive will be implemented, will be adopted. So this is very important. I think we should not expect anything from France – if Macron agrees, it means that we have a bad directive. But Estonia, especially Estonia, would be our last chance to have a directive.

Veronika Susova-Salminen: So you mentioned several actors that are involved in this quite difficult process for outsiders to understand how the directive is constructed, and in particular you mentioned lobbies a couple of times. I would like to look at that a little bit because that is something that is not so well known. So if you could tell us more, more specifically how this business lobby works. We know that Uber has a huge lobby in the European Commission, in the European Union. Was it really just the lobbying that was the ultimate reason for the failure of the directive?

Yes. When you are elected to the European Parliament, it is very important to see what lobbying is, even if it might be difficult to understand from the outside. What does it mean? It means interest groups, private interests, multinational interests. It’s very common that they write the law. Not officially, but they have a lot of power.

In the European Parliament, we, all the MEPs do most of the work in Brussels. We are all very far from our citizens, very far physically. For citizens, what’s happening in the European Union seems very, very distant, very complicated. They don’t understand it. You have the way free for the lobby. The lobbyists have a badge, a kind of the same badge that we have as MEPs, but a different colour. You can come and go from the European Parliament. If you or any other citizen wants to come into the European Parliament, you have to be accredited. You cannot just walk in and say hello. But the lobbies, they come and they know exactly what’s going on inside. They have many ways to influence the legislative process in favour of private interests. And that was one of the reasons why the European Union, the European Parliament, makes decisions in favour of the lobby, because the citizens are very far away.

Going back to the beginning of our story about the platform workers. What I had in front of me were Uber and Deliveroo platform lobbies. Of course, you will never have them introduced as lobbyists. They speak of public affairs. But at the beginning it was clear that they come from and it was written Deliveroo, Uber. But after a couple of months, it was no longer Uber and Deliveroo, but an association like the EU tech alliance. An association about mobility. They said: we are going to give you our opinion on the platform workers directive. But when you go to the website, when you do a little bit of research, you find out that in fact they represent the main platforms. The same identity.

What was the second part of your question? Sorry.

The second part was whether, whether, whether it was just lobbyists behind this failure or whether it was more complicated.

The MEPs should do the law. But in the European Union, you have a different situation, you have three institutions, you have the European Commission. The European Commission was very involved in this issue because the European Commission had to do the first legislative publication. And for me it was very important that within the European Commission you have a Commissioner, you have one in charge of employment, you have another one in charge of the market, you have another one in charge of competition. And for me, in the beginning, it was very important that whoever was in charge of employment was also in charge of this issue. So first of all we had to fight for Nicholas Schmidt to take over. The problem is that he is not the most important. You have a balance of power in every institution, even within the European Commission, and the Commissioner in charge of employment is not the most important at all. He’s very weak compared to Margrete Vestager, who is in charge of competition, for example. Why was it important? Because if you start the job by saying it’s an employment issue, it’s not going to be the same directive as if you said it was a competition issue. If you start by saying it’s a question of competition, you’re still going to think, like Macron of the French government, that you’ve got self-employed, you’ve got companies and you don’t need to talk about labour law. 

 So the first stage of struggle was within the European Commission, to ensure that Nicholas Schmidt takes the files. Next, when the European Commission makes the first draft, they have to send it to the European Parliament and the Council, the two other institutions of the European Union. Within the European Parliament, you have many progressive MEPs like me, from different countries, from different groups. We, we have always been in line with the progressive forces, that is the Greens and the Socialists, the S&D. But we managed to convince others, the traditional right, EPP. How did we do that?

The European Parliament said we needed a very strong position of the employment relationship. And here there come ideas that are more attached to the right wing, like a fair playing field, a level playing field, fair competition, things like that. You cannot accept that you have companies in the market that do not respect the law. Other companies pay social security, respect collective bargaining and other things that they don’t respect. It’s a question of an even playing field. If you respect the status of the self-employed, you cannot accept that you have bogus self-employed, because bogus self-employed is a risk for the self-employed. Therefore, the are not only traditional, left-wing arguments in the dispute. We managed to talk to everyone.

It was the most difficult to talk with Renew Europe, the official centre party. But they are very liberal. It was within this group that the platforms found the biggest ally. They are also found within the EPP group. Of course, we were very lucky in this story that the negotiator we had from the EPP group was someone who has right-wing view, but he’s also a former trade unionist. The lobbies were not in the negotiating room, but they found allies and they gave arguments. Sometimes when I was in an employment committee and I listened to some MEPs, they were speaking exactly in the same words, the same language that Uber had written for them. This was the second part of the negociations.

The third stage of the struggle took place inside the Council, where you have the representation of the 27 member states. The best ally of the platform workers in this representation was Spain, while France was on the other side. Spain is the best ally of platform workers, because it is the first country to have a law Ithat says that if you are in the delivery sector, you have to have employees. It’s forbidden to be self-employed. It was very important. And the work that we did during the Spanish Presidency in the second half of 2023 was very important, because we knew that even if they didn’t have as much room for manoeuvre as they would like, because they had to represent the whole Council, it was way better for the directive than had we had a French Presidency or the Czech Republic Presidency. The platform lobbyists were not in the room, but France was their ally. In case of France, every time when Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, asks for something in Politico or in the position paper, two months after the government implements it. This is the balance of power.

I would like to ask you one more thing, to put the issue on a more general level. Maybe it’s too much of a generalisation, but how would we evaluate this example, what does it tell us about how the European Union is run in general, how is run the European economic and social policy? Social Europe, as we know, is still far from us, and the contemporary European Union is still run by the private economic interests, which are much more powerful than the idea of a social Europe. What are your thoughts on that?

I think this is a very interesting question. With this example of platform workers, we’re not talking about platform workers rights only. What we’re talking about is social Europe, the social model. The issue is: do we want to respect the labor laws, the collective bargaining, the social protection, or do you want to allow any platform? Because it could be any company, in any sector, in the restaurant, in the supermarket. Should we agree to have people working under a subordination relationship, but without any right, without any right, without any protection? This is the issue.

Even if we don’t manage to have that directive [in the end the directive was accepted], but at the same time, we managed to win several steps. I think we would not have managed to win even these steps ten or 15 years ago. Things have changed in the European Union.

We are not social. The social Europe is very far. And I’m not going to say that with the next European election, we will have a social Europe. However, at the beginning, when the European Union was created, it was the market only. We thought that if we did the competition, the market, then the social aspect would come automatically. But in 2017, for the first time, there appeared the text: the European social pillar, when we say no. We need to give European Union a principle, social principle and social goals, social objective targets. OK, but nothing very concrete. Then in 2019 you have the Covid crisis and its very important social consequences. Then many people in the European Union realize that if we want the European Union to survive, it cannot be only a market.

Many people realized in the European Union what are the results of the dogma like the rule saying that when you are a member state of the European Union, you cannot go further than 3% of your deficit. This means you have to respect the competition, the member states are not allowed to invest in hospitals, in the public housing, to deal with the social consequences of Covid 19. Things have changed, the dogma has moved and people are aware that if you want European Union to survive, the political decision cannot be taken to support market competition only, without tackling social issues. This has given the opportunity to make more social political decisions and political action.

Still, there has not been a revolution inside the European Union. You still cannot go further than 3% of deficits. The last decisions from the European Commission are a comeback of austerity. We’re going to vote on this issue on the economic committee on Monday [11 March]. And it seems that unfortunately, we are coming back to traditional bad decision of austerity and restricting the investment from member states.

However, I would make the comparison that the door has been open a little bit. We can push further, we manage to push and to have some victory. But behind the door, you have other people pushing to the other way. We managed to open it with a lot of will, but they managed to close again. We should continue all the way we’ve done for decades

I’d like to ask you what will happen to the new paradigm if the new European Parliament is more right-wing than the one we have today? And according to all the polls, we are going to see a European Parliament with more right-wing MEPs than ever before. While I could agree with you that people in the European Union are indeed tired of austerity, and we see it even on the streets, we see the expectation for a more social Europe, these polls don’t really allow us to be optimistic about the future. So do you expect the new European Parliament to make it even harder to push for a social Europe, or do you see some possibilities that were not there ten years ago?

Of course, I am very afraid when I see the polls. In the European Parliament, my seat in the circle is on the left side, in from the the extreme right groups. We have two such factions and they both are bigger than us, the Left. And even though they are much bigger than us, we manage to get the European Parliament say that we are in favour of an employment status for platform workers.

For the future, I’m very afraid because I know that there are many chances that in the next European Parliament, the extreme right group is going to be much bigger and it’s going to be much more difficult. There is a chance that we will have to resist more than anytime a new right. But I think what would be crucial if we don’t just want to look at this and look at the European Parliament being more and more on the far right, we need a change. The decisions of the European Union must be more in favour of the people. If people don’t see that it’s useful to go and vote for the progressive group in the European Parliament, they don’t do it. And so you have a parliament that doesn’t make decisions in favour of the people.

We have to, first of all, to do the maximum in order that the people go to vote. Because what I see is that the first vote for people is not the extreme right vote, but not to vote at all. That is the situation in my country. One out of two people, one out of two citizens don’t go to vote in the European elections. People should be more aware that what’s happening inside the European Union, inside the European Parliament, has an impact on your life, on your daily life. It’s important to vote in the next elections, and then we have to continue the fight in such a European Parliament, but also at the national level. We still have to try to open this door that I’ve been talking about. Clearly there is a risk that it’s going to be closed again.

The last question is what happens next? You said that if you manage to convince Estonia, then the directive is still in play. What can be done for the platform workers when there has been so much lobbying to stop it. What are your next steps?

What we have managed is that Uber hasn’t made the law in Europe, because I was talking about the balance of power. We started five years ago. Then, it was really very easy for the lobby to writea directive that says you have a third category between the employee status and the self-employed status. This time, they didn’t do it. That is the first victory. And I know from the voice of the French government in particular that they wanted something that during the months of negotiation between the Parliament and the Council, they wanted to insert the French derogation. It was a kind of detogation that would have made the directive totally useless and totally empty. Totally watered down. They didn’t make it.

As I said, the last change is the 11th of March, and I wish that the Belgian Presidency would convince just one more Member State. We have 23. Is that a democracy? In three months’ time we have a European election. We have the opportunity to show that for once the European Union can make a policy in favour of the people, in favour of the workers, instead of in favour of the lobby, as it always does. It’s not only for my group, but I think it’s for many groups, for the interest of the European Union itself, that we have to adopt this directive, because otherwise what? Five years of work get thrown in the bin and another time the lobby has decided how we do the law . And we have all the European Parliament that is convinced or the European Commission, and 23 member states out of 27. I hope that Estonian people can convince the government that Bolt, which is an Estonian platform, doesn’t have to make the law, because I know that Bolts have said to the government, to the Estonian government: we’re going to the UK if you agree with the directive.

Germany, as I said, because of the coalition government, doesn’t want to take a position on this directive. A pity! But all we need is one member state.

You know, in this story, nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen. So maybe we should get a directive passed. And if we don’t? If we don’t, I’ll be very sad. And I hope we won’t, because if we don’t have an agreement on 11 March, as we have the elections in June, we won’t have a directive during this legislature. It’s going to be too short, it will be impossible. We will start again the fight from the next legislature. But as you know, it will be much more difficult because of the extreme right inside the European Parliament, the balance of power will be much more complicated. [The directive, however, was adopted and the struggle will not need to be continued].

Even if we don’t have a directive, something new is the involvement of workers. We have another stakeholder, a kind of international network of platform workers, gig workers. It’s a powerful network. It’s a powerful lobby. And I think now the platforms will not be able to do whatever they want because they have to remember about this new stakeholder, which is this kind of alternative lobby of gig workers.

So that was the next episode of our Cross-Border talks. Our guest was a French member of the European Parliament, Leila Chaibi. Thank you, Leila, for your answers and very precise information on this issue.

Thank you very much.

We were actually, I will remind everybody at the end, we were talking about the future of platform workers and the labour rights of platform workers, which is a growing, technology-driven trend in our economies at the moment. That’s why it’s a very important thing, because it’s something that I think will influence the future of work. That’s why this directive, that’s why this initiative is very, very important.

And I just want to remind everybody, don’t forget to subscribe to our channels on SoundCloud or YouTube. You will find there a lot of different interviews, and also for our website where you can also find a lot of new articles and very interesting articles. I can remind you of the last one about the Polish infrastructure projects and their future. Thank you very much, Leila. Thank you, Malgorzata. Have a nice day everyone who was with us.

Postscriptum. After the last chance to save the directive came true, Leila Chaibi commented:

Throughout the negotiations, Emmanuel Macron tried to torpedo the presumption of salaried status, to serve Uber rather than the workers. The French President Macron – the self-proclaimed champion of a ‘Europe that protects’ – has shown here that in reality it only protects the interests of the lobbies. Thanks to our fight, we did not let Uber make the law in Europe. With this directive, millions of false self-employed people across Europe will be reclassified as employees.

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