Written by Professor Anthony Forsyth
a ground-breaking initiative by leading companies in the sector to collectively identify and commit to key principles that in their view should underpin good platform work
In reality, though, the Charter is nothing more than a self-serving attempt by these companies and the WEF to create the impression that they are committed to the wellbeing of workers – while their practices continue to demonstrate otherwise.
The founding partners whose CEOs signed the Charter are Cabify, Deliveroo, Grab, MBO Partners, Postmates and Uber. They give the game away at the start. Among the opening ‘views and aspirations’ of the Charter is the following:
It is important that platform workers are classified appropriately under the law and suitable regulation provided for these forms of work and services.
This is code for the starting assumption of contractor status adopted by most gig economy platforms, which shifts the onus onto workers to prove – through costly litigation – that they are in fact employees. This position is reinforced by the Definitions in the Charter – ‘platform workers/contractors’ are:
People who earn income from work facilitated or to which they were connected by digital work/services platforms …
And just to be sure:
The use of ‘worker’ is generic and is not intended to have any employment connotation; it does not imply the employment law definition of a worker in certain countries.
So even in a document ostensibly aimed at promoting ‘good platform work’, these companies feel compelled to include language (like that found in the services agreements many of them utilize) preserving the misclassification of workers. And that misclassification is all about ensuring that platform workers do not have access to minimum wage laws, protection from unfair dismissal and the right to organise through a union.
The same doublespeak is found in the section of the Charter on ‘Reasonable pay and fees’:
Where minimum wage thresholds exist, workers classified as employees should earn at least the minimum wage of their jurisdiction, proportional to the time spent actively working and accounting for reasonable expenses for their mode of work.
This ‘principle’ is meaningless for two reasons. First, platforms like Uber have spent millions globally defending their contractor model, to deny drivers and food-delivery riders employee status and the rights and benefits that come with it. Secondly, for the small numbers of platform workers that are treated as employees, the Charter is simply stating the obvious: that platforms must obey local laws by paying the minimum wage.
The Charter’s provisions dealing with ‘Flexibility and fair conditions’ are no more helpful:
Grounds and procedures for account deactivation should be clear, and platforms should work to establish processes to challenge decisions where relevant …. Workers should be able to decline to accept offered tasks or decline work at certain times – although platforms should where relevant be entitled to log off or deactivate workers who have been inactive for a prolonged period and to apply disincentives where workers decline to complete work they have accepted.
The unconstrained ability of platforms to effectively dismiss workers by cutting them off the app – for reasons such as poor customer ratings, refusing work or breaching ‘community standards’ – has been a major issue in many jurisdictions. But the Charter simply gives a green light for these practices to continue. The promise of ‘processes to challenge decisions where relevant’ sits at odds with platforms challenging the legal right of workers to contest such decisions until now. Will the promised processes allow workers to contest their dismissal through independent, impartial courts or tribunals? I doubt it.
By the time we get to the section of the Charter on ‘Voice and participation’, it is clear what this exercise is all about:
Workers should be able to express their views on platform guidelines and practices to the platform, and platforms should provide processes, channels and/or forums as appropriate for these discussions to occur.
What kind of worker voice or participation is that? Exactly the same kind that the platforms have propagated globally – limp, ineffective processes like roundtables and focus groups that are controlled by management, as I discussed in a previous post on my blog Labour Law Down Under. There is nothing in the Charter about recognising a union as the chosen representative of workers. That is because platforms like Deliveroo and Foodora have fought legal cases to challenge the right of workers to access union representation and collective bargaining, including the recent case in Ontario in which Foodora workers were found to be employees. The last thing these companies want is an effective, independent form of worker representation like a trade union.
In summary, the World Economic Forum Charter is a licence for ‘business as usual’ in the gig economy. Platforms can continue along the path of one-way flexibility, denial of employee status, and evasion of basic rights including freedom of association for their workers.
A far more meaningful blueprint for reform of platform work was outlined in the recent Report and Policy Recommendations of the ‘Don’t Gig Up’ Project undertaken by the Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini with European Union Funding. Among the recommendations was the introduction of a presumption of ‘platforms as employers’:
… deeming them obliged to comply with labour law unless there is evidence pointing towards genuine self-employment and the possibility for the self-employed workers concerned to use the platform to develop a truly independent activity.
In addition, on collective representation the Don’t Gig Up Report proposed that:
… the ‘digital’ workplace shall be considered as a bargaining unit for the purposes of union rights, e.g. for thresholds applying to the establishment of workers councils [and] to guarantee other union rights such as freedom to associate, freedom of assembly, right to strike, etc. … gig workers shall be offered adequate and secure tools for organising collective action, without risking quick retaliation and disconnection by platform owners.
Implementing those proposals would go a long way further towards combating the unfairness of the gig economy, and ensuring ‘good platform work’, than the World Economic Forum’s latest effort.
Anthony Forsyth, “The World Economic Forum’s “Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work”: The Gig is Up”, Canadian Law of Work Forum (March 10 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/the-world-economic-forums-charter-of-principles-for-good-platform-work-the-gig-is-up/ . This piece is based on an earlier post by Professor Forsyth on our partner blog, Labour Law Down Under.