The platform economy and social law: Key issues in comparative perspective

The topic of the platform economy and its social effects has been the subject
of ongoing academic interest and social debate for many years now. Despite
the fact that numerous studies have been published, the subject remains
difficult to grasp and contextualise due to a lack of accurate and reliable data
– in particular in terms of the sector’s economic weight and volume of
employment. A further difficulty is that the platform economy is a generic term
covering many different business models.
For several years now, the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) has been
focusing its research on the digitalisation of the economy and on the platform
economy, mainly from a work and employment perspective. What working
conditions are platform workers subjected to, how are they trying to organise,
what rights do they have, what can they do to uphold them?
For its part, Bordeaux University’s Centre for Comparative Labour and Social
Security Law (COMPTRASEC) held a European workshop in November 2018
dedicated to a comparative legal approach to the platform economy and the
questions it raises in terms of social legislation. Ten countries (Austria,
Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the
United Kingdom and the United States) representing a wide variety of legal
traditions and faced with different levels of digitalisation of the economy were
analysed by legal experts for labour and social security affairs: what are the
legal conflicts arising from this new business model, how is national jurispru –
dence evolving, how are the respective players adapting their strategies?
This legal perspective reveals that the platforms are trying to use the gaps and
ambiguities in social legislation to arrive at an interpretation in which their
business model abrogates all social responsibility towards those working for
them. Various court rulings seek to enforce this legislation or instead question
the very definition of a worker and an employer. These cases brought to the
courts by those involved (very often collective cases) in an attempt to redress
the balance of power mean that legislation is set to play a role in renewing the
social contract.
The work done in parallel by the ETUI and Comptrasec was destined to merge
at some stage. This has since happened, with this publication the result thereof.
As readers will see, this project complements the legal approach with a general
analysis from a historical perspective, contextualising the evolution of
The platform economy and social law: Key issues in comparative perspective
WP 2019.10 5
industrial relations in light of technological developments1
. This comple –
mentary approach enables us to move on from the sterile and often simplistic
debates over such questions as: “are robots going to steal our jobs?”; “Are
digital platforms on the verge of destroying our social models?”
As such, neither robots nor platforms pose such threats. Looked at from a social
perspective, technology cannot be analysed on its own. This always has to be
done in conjunction with the business model that uses it. The issue at stake is
thus how these technologies are being used by certain business models. This
merits a wider debate, to which this publication aims to contribute. This debate
needs to be constructive, not just focusing on a certain technology, but also on
how it is being used by those managing it and on the threats it poses to society
at large. This is also a field necessitating laws, as laws can stake the boundaries
of the context in which innovations develop.
The main feature of this publication lies in this complementary approach. The
social and legal questions posed by the platformisation of the economy are very
similar to those posed by the social transformations of past industrial
revolutions; transformations which served as a lever for bygone institutions to
establish, step by step, the social models we now enjoy. What is at stake here
is the emergence of a renewed social contract. We hope that this novel
approach will help readers to better identify the challenges and to highlight the
important role of the actors involved.

 

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