Employment: MEPs to discuss plans to reinforce workers' rights 

The digital economy has led to news forms of employment ©AP Images/European Union-EP  

The labour market has drastically changed in recent years due in part to the digital economy, leading to more temporary jobs and more people being treated as independent contractors. However, the EU is preparing legislation to reinforce workers' rights as part of the European pillar of social rights initiative. The European Commission will present the plans to MEPs on Wednesday 26 April. We asked two MEPs about the best ways to create fair working conditions for employees.

Parliament position

The European pillar of social rights initiative aims to achieve equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and adequate and sustainable social protection. Portuguese S&D member Maria João Rodrigues is responsible for steering the proposals through Parliament. She said:  "[Parliament] defends a directive on fair working conditions for all workers, ensuring a core set of enforceable labour rights, health insurance and social protection even for those who work in temporary contracts, on-demand, in internships or as self-employed under digital platforms. All these people need to make a decent living and need to be protected.”

In January MEPs adopted a resolution on the European pillar of social rights, calling on the Commission to extend existing minimum standards to new kinds of employment.

New opportunities and challenges

The digital  economy has created new opportunities, but also fresh challenges. Companies such as Uber and Deliveroo have developed on-line platforms that people can use to request a ride or order food. The proceeds are then shared between these firms and the drivers and deliverers. This has proved very advantageous to these companies as they benefit from workers providing their own equipment, such as their own car or bike. This reduces costs for them, giving them an edge over traditional companies.

“The global nature of digital economy increases choices for consumers and boosts price competition,” said Finnish EPP member Henna Virkkunen, who is responsible for steering plans regarding online platforms and the digital single market through Parliament. She added that it offers workers chances to decide how much and where they want to work.

However, it has also raised questions about how these companies operate. A Spanish taxi association brought a case before the European Court of Justice to clarify whether Uber should be treated as a digital platform, a transport company or both as rights and obligations differ depending on the classification.

Virkkunen said: “It is vital for the EU to create a level playing field for comparable services online and offline to foster fair competition. EU competition law should be respected in both online and offline worlds.”

Fellow MEP Rodrigues added:  “These platforms may ensure better and cheaper services to the consumers and create new jobs, but it also raises issues of unfair competition and social dumping,"

There are also issues with how these companies treat their collaborators. Although these firms do not employ drivers and deliverers, they do subject to increasingly stringent rules. If the drivers and deliverers do not respect them, companies can deny them the right to use their platforms to earn money.

By treating these people as independent contractors, companies do not have to give them workers' rights, such as sick leave or minimum pay. However, not everyone agrees with this approach, as they believe they should be considered employees with all the rights that come with this status.

UK courts recently ruled that Uber drivers are not self-employed and that plumbers working gigs are not independent operators, but workers entitled to social rights.

Follow the debate live this afternoon.