What is the purpose of digital platform work, what challenges do platform workers face, and how can these complexities be mitigated? To find answers to these questions, the Ministry of Social Affairs commissioned economist Kaire Holts of Tallinn University to conduct study on organizing platform workers in Estonia. The study confirmed some of the problems and dispelled popular misconceptions.
Highly educated couriers
Kaire Holts' study was based on in-depth interviews with Estonian as well as foreign platform workers from Russia, Turkey, Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, Georgia, Ukraine and India.
The education level of foreign platform workers was especially noteworthy, she said. Interviews have revealed that for foreign platform workers, this is a temporary occupation undertaken during or after their education while they are looking for a professional employment.
"The misconception that foreign couriers mainly come to Estonia for work has been disproved. In my study, all international platform workers were either enrolled in or in the process of completing a higher education program, and were working on a temporary basis. Estonian-origin platform workers had a significantly lower level of education," Holts explained her findings.
Quite often, a language barrier was cited as a major obstacle to finding a professional job, which is not the case for platform work.
The freedom to exhaust oneself
According to the study, the key advantage of platform work is flexibility in terms of time, job volume, and location: work could be done during the day, night, weekdays and weekends. This can result in severe overload.
"Since platform workers in Estonia are not protected by employment contracts, working time and rest rules do not apply to them," Holts said.
People frequently bite the bullet on multiple platforms at the same time. They, for example, register as taxi drivers and food delivery couriers, so if one app attempts to limit a user's working hours, the next one could be launched.
"There are no de facto restrictions on working hours for taxi drivers. However, some platforms restrict it, so if you are on the road for 12 hours in a row, you cannot drive. /.../ And the platforms, of course, do not share that information, so [name of platform] and [name of competing platform] have restrictions that restrict the driver or force him to rest, but you can switch between the apps."
"The [platform name] does not impose restrictions on drivers and one could drive for 48 hours in a row. /…/ And because the weekend is the most profitable time to drive, some drivers work Friday evening to Sunday lunchtime."
"Let's say you spend the night in the car; these drivers are from outside of Tallinn and have rented a car for the weekend. They sleep in the car during Saturday afternoon's quieter hours and as soon as the order is received they are back on the road."
According to the findings, platform employees may choose not to take vacation days.
The Development Monitoring Center reports that about 200,000 Estonians have participated in platform work: 96,000 do so at least once a month and 56,000 on a weekly basis.
The vast majority engage in platform work in addition to their other pursuits and only less than five percent, or 2,500 people (4.4 percent), rely solely on this revenue source.
While platform work has been commonly viewed as a supplemental job, Holts said that the situation can be reversed: "There are trends where platform work is the primary activity and is supplemented by other activities because the income from it is insufficient to support a person."
"The city is on fire"
At least 28 virtual communities have been established since 2015 to facilitate interaction among platform workers. While taxi drivers prefer Facebook, food delivery couriers prefer Telegram. The groups' purpose usually is to share experiences, solve problems and stay up to date on the latest news.
In addition to informal groups created by employees themselves, platform managers have also created groups to advise workers, for example, about changes to pricing and bonus programs. During peak hours, there are might be calls to action such as "The city is on fire" or "Tallinn is really busy this morning; join the party!"
Platform companies also organized joint events for drivers in the early days of the platform and community bonding was encouraged. Nowadays, however, most communication is online.
"There are probably several reasons for this, including the pandemic, an increase in the number of platform workers and an active shift away from platform activities that could give the impression of an employee-employer relationship," Holts explains.
Unresolved problems and vengeance
The difficulties in finding solutions to problems are related to the platform business model's unique character. Respondents to the survey were worried about remuneration, a lack of transparency in the rating system and the incontestability of publicly visible ratings.
As platform labor is mostly controlled by algorithms, and so there are issues with algorithm opacity -- employees may not understand the criteria by which algorithms distribute orders that could lead to their accounts being unexpectedly suspended, or how the reward for the service is determined.
Low ratings can also be caused by factors beyond the platform operator's control.
"In Tartu, the courier's bicycle broke down, delaying his arrival at the customer. A Tallinn platform driver took his child to the hospital during his shift. Regardless of their explanation, both were penalized and given negative ratings, which may have an impact on their future employment opportunities," Holts explained.
Currently, there is no established method for effectively disputing low customer ratings. Platform businesses typically warn or reassure their customers rather than providing them with explanations. Discontent with the procedure leads to a form of vigilantism, she warned.
Failed attempts to resolve the issue with a platform have led to the drivers compiling a list of difficult customers, which is being updated collectively and this joint action extends beyond the compilation of a list to include the imposition of "penalties."
"The situation actually leads to creation of these networks among drivers in which the names and phone numbers of their clients are circulated, as well as sometimes some kind of retaliatory action to actually call the client to account."
"There are these somewhat ugly techniques, in which these telephone numbers are entered, and their client's names are identified, as a general rule, in some portals where a large number of calls are made at night."
This shows that unfair customer evaluations and the inability to contest them have reached the top of the list of problems among digital platform taxi drivers. When individual and collective actions fail to produce results, the likelihood of collective action increases, Holts writes.
Moreover, some employees are dissatisfied with the compensation they receive for their services, citing factors such as large fluctuations over time and unpaid waiting periods.
People whose primary source of income is platform work face the most difficulties. They will struggle to make a living if they do not receive enough job searches or are prevented from working, for example, if a worker becomes ill or has car repairs that require a service.
A collective bargaining agreement could be one of the solutions
The Ministry of Social Affairs commissioned this study to determine whether and to what degree platform workers in Estonia are organized, as well as what factors encourage and inhibit their unification.
"This is a gray area. As most platform workers in Estonia are self-employed, they do not have the right to enter into any collective bargaining agreement," Holts said.
Workers, for example, have different expectations about working conditions and the possibility of organizing a trade union depending on whether platform work is their primary or secondary source of income.
Moreover, the potential for this kind of joint action depends on the type of service offered on the platform. In the taxi community, for example, there is competition between long-standing taxi drivers and new business taxi drivers in the platform economy, which hinders the formation of a collective feeling. However, taxi drivers have a greater potential for collective action than food delivery drivers because they are the most dissatisfied with their working conditions.
Holts said that it is, nevertheless, important to raise platform workers' awareness of various types of work and their collective labor rights and that providing all platform workers the right to collective bargaining is justified, given that they face a large number of risks, obligations and expenses without having a say in reducing them.
In a collective bargaining agreement platform owners and platform workers could, for instance, agree on a minimum pay. Current legislation allows platform workers who have an employment contract to enter into collective bargaining agreements, but not independent platform workers.
The challenges of platform work across the European Union
Maria-Helena Rahumets, a consultant at the labor relations and environment department of the Ministry of Social Affairs said that the European Union is likely to produce a guideline on the rights of platform workers in the near future.
Specifically, the Directive seeks to ensure that platform workers can obtain the correct employment status and that platform work is more transparent. It does not regulate the rights to collective bargaining.
According to the European Commission, the number of platform workers in the European Union will exceed 28 million by 2025 and may exceed 43 million. According to one estimate, more than five million platform workers in the Union may have their job status incorrectly defined; for example, they may be working under a service contract when their actual relationship with the platform is one of an employment contract. This is likely to lead to poor working conditions and inadequate social protection. At the end of last year, the Commission proposed a directive to improve conditions for platform work in three ways.
First, it seeks to ensure that those working through platforms have or have the potential to obtain the appropriate job status, allowing them access to employment and social protection rights. The second goal is to ensure transparency in algorithmic management. Third, it intends to improve the overall transparency and traceability of platform activities.
"When adopted, the guidelines will need to be incorporated into Estonian legislation. Currently, negotiations are underway," Rahumets said.
The European Commission has issued guidelines on the right to collective bargaining in order to improve the working conditions of self-employed individuals. The guidelines explain the collective bargaining rights of independent contractors, such as platform employees, Rahumets added.
The study "Organizing Platform Workers in Estonia" by Kaire Holts provides a more in-depth review of the challenges and opportunities associated with organizing. The document is available on the Ministry of Social Affairs website (link in Estonian).
Editor: Kristina Kersa