European Commission plans to protect people in precarious jobs in the gig economy could be the most ambitious extension of workers’ rights since Brussels since Britain left the EU.
If passed, the plans would mean gig economy companies, like Uber and Deliveroo, would have to treat workers as employees with minimum wages (where they exist), sick pay, vacations and better accident insurance, unless they can prove that the drivers and couriers were genuinely self-employed.
Workers would also enjoy greater protection from algorithmic management, meaning they could not be denied work or fired by a machine whose code is shrouded in secrecy.
The UK Government will have no part in making these rules, nor any obligation to enforce them. That was, after all, the purpose of Brexit. Yet British policymakers and businesses operating in the UK may find it difficult to avoid the gravitational pull of Brussels.
EU law only applies to 450 million people in 27 member states, but its effects can be felt much more widely as global companies adopt EU rules across all of their activities to reduce costs or avoid complexity. The so-called Brussels effect can be seen in the scope of EU data protection rules, as well as standards on chemicals, cars and food safety.
Nicolas Schmit, the European commissioner for employment, suggested that the same effect could apply with the last concert economy plan. “This standard will not only influence the 27 member states and the platforms operating in the 27 member states, it will probably also become a kind of standard that will apply to other countries or even parts of the world,” he said. he told the Guardian.
This judgment may be too early to be rendered. It is estimated that 500 gig economy companies are active in the EU. They are likely to react in different ways to EU legislation, which still needs to be approved in complex, months-long negotiations between EU ministers and MEPs.
Some companies might choose to treat gig workers as employees, as Dutch company Just Eat does, or follow Danish cleaning company Hilfr, which offers employee status to those who have worked more than 100 hours on its platform. Others may seek to adapt their business model or leave a country altogether if they see no way to be profitable.
In the UK gig economy, companies have to respond to court rulings rather than new legislation. A landmark Supreme Court decision earlier this year defined Uber drivers as workers entitled to minimum wage and paid vacation. The category of ‘worker’, distinct from employees and self-employed, was defined in the Employment Rights Act 1996.
George Maier, an expert on gig economics at the London School of Economics, said companies had sought to take advantage of ambiguities in a law written for the pre-internet era. “At the moment it feels like construction workers, often from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, are having to bear the costs associated with fighting for their basic rights in court. This shouldn’t happen.
Boris Johnson was elected in 2019 on a manifesto promise to introduce ‘measures to protect people in low-paying jobs and the gig economy’, an idea developed in the Queen’s Speech that year with a commitment to introduce a Jobs Bill that would “protect and strengthen workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.
Almost two years after this speech, no jobs bill has been published by the government.
While the pandemic has derailed many plans, there is also a volatile debate about what Brexit really means. In trying to push his EU Withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons in October 2019, the Prime Minister expressed his commitment to “the highest possible standards” of workers’ rights, saying that “everything the EU offers, we can match and pass to the law of this country”.
The sentiment he expressed that day is far from being shared by the entire government. In a little-noticed speech at the Center for Policy Studies last month, Brexit Minister David Frost spoke out in favor of a low-tax, lightly-regulated economy on a different path from the EU. “If after Brexit we only import the European social model, we will not achieve this,” he said.
The latest EU proposal will increase pressure on the government to deliver on its promise to strengthen labor rights, following a pandemic that exposed reliance on low-paid workers in homes pensions, supermarkets, delivery vans and bicycles.
The EU proposals will “undoubtedly help inform and inspire” trade unions in the UK, Tim Sharp told the Trades Union Congress. “This is a government that came to power after Brexit saying it would protect and strengthen workers’ rights. I think if workers in the European Union are seen as having rights and power, then workers here would expect the same.
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: ‘The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world – going further than the EU in many areas – and we believe the current framework of UK employment status is striking. the right balance between the flexibility our economy needs and the protection of workers.