Navigating work in the platform economy: Towards an integrated perspective between policy, research and workers

By Anne Heslinga and Jans Berden (22 November 2022, 14:00–18:00, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Campus Woudestein)

On November 22, 2022, during the symposium ‘Navigating work in the platform economy’, two panels discussed the experiences and challenges facing gig workers. The event was organised by the Platform Labour Group, in which several AiPact members are involved. It brought together people who are engaged with platform labor from different perspectives. In the first panel, we heard from platform workers from different sectors, including a delivery driver, a domestic worker, two ride-hailers, and one crowd worker who performs short tasks online. In the second panel, we heard from Uma Rani (ILO) and Agnieszka Piasna (ETUI) on economic and employment regulation at the international and European level, and from Martijn J. Peltenburg (Municipality of Rotterdam) and Martijn Müller (, cooperative) on challenges and opportunities facing local and national platform economies.

The two panels aim to bring together expert policymakers, researchers and the everyday experiences of workers themselves. Research and policy insights on platform work emphasize the tendency of platforms to negatively impact working conditions and workers’ rights.[1] The Platform Directive, proposed legislation by the European Commission aimed at platform work, focuses on formalising employment relations between platform workers and the platform companies.[2] The combination of both panels and the possibility for panelists to respond to each other, led to the insight that attempts to incentivize workers to pursue more stable forms of work needs to include acknowledging and addressing the underlying reasons for workers to take up platform work. This key takeaway will be further explained in this report.

The first panel indicates a diversity of experiences among platform workers. On the one hand, workers clearly indicate that they face challenges due to the unique nature of platform work. These challenges depend upon the industry in question, but can include inconsistent income, long hours, algorithmic implications after taking breaks and holidays, a lack of information about clients and the platform itself, and limited interaction with other platforms workers, which limits possibilities for collective action. As one ride-hailer said: ‘One of the downsides of being a freelancer in the taxi business, is that it’s not one for all, it’s almost the other way around. […] If you don’t have unity, you can do nothing against these platforms.’ At the same time, some workers, particularly those with alternative sources of income, indicate that they enjoy the flexibility and increased earning potential that platforms provide. When faced with the question of whether they would rather be an employee or a freelancer, responses of platform workers mostly depend on their access to additional streams of income.

Furthermore, the benefits of becoming an employee, which can include holiday pay, pension, and insurance, would need to result in an income equal to or higher than income received as a freelance platform worker. If workers have a higher gross income through platforms as freelancers, it will be difficult to convince them of the advantages of employment. Workers also assume that employment automatically implies losing the flexibility and autonomy that they perceive as inherent in platform work. The outcomes of this panel indicate that policymakers and stakeholders interested in improving labor conditions on platforms will need to take into account the experiences of workers when designing policies, and will need to clearly and convincingly communicate the benefits and risks of employment categorization decisions to workers when implementing these policies.

The second panel covered a range of expert perspectives from academia, policy, and business. On the basis of two large-scale survey studies in the EU and around the world, it is clear that poor local labor market conditions and engagement with forms of precarious work are often drivers for workers to take on platform work. Migrant and refugee workers and those in non-permanent or unstable working conditions are more likely to take on platform work. These findings emphasize the importance of taking into account short-comings of labor conditions. As Uma Rani pointed out, in regions where unemployment is common, platforms are often seen as opportunities for people with a distance to the labor market. However, the reality of platform work is often less positive, as platforms change the way work is organized and shift responsibilities entirely onto workers. Platform workers often earn less than the minimum wage in their country.[3] The findings of large-scale surveys also indicate that there are a range of region and country specific effects of platform work. For example, in developing countries, tendencies for highly educated individuals to take on platform work is often inimical to sustainable economic development.

Policy makers are concerned about the long-term impact of platform work on society due to the shortage in savings for retirement or sickness. Martijn J. Peltenburg argues that there seems to be a growing trend to take up freelance work, but if it doesn’t work out and people lose their work, the city and its citizens have to pay for this. However, before taking action, it is important for policy makers to assess the impact of regulating platform work on different stakeholders (i.e. the workers themselves, domestic and non-domestic employers, and civil society). This means taking into careful consideration the definition of platform companies, the localization of workers and the type of work they do. According to Agnieszka Piasna, it would be good to broaden the term ‘platform work’ to ‘internet work’ to ensure that influencers on Social Media, renting practices, transport and more are included when we consider the impact of platforms on work and society.

Taken together, the symposium yields some key insights for those interested in improved working conditions for platform workers. In particular, as mentioned in the introduction, the discussions point to the importance of an approach that addresses the underlying reasons that workers pursue platform work, while also incentivizing workers to pursue more stable forms of work. According to Martijn Müller, who has been working as a delivery rider for many years and now started his own platform cooperative with other riders, the question should move from ‘do you want employment?’ towards ‘what are you willing to give up for more stability and security in your work, including e.g. insurances and secured pension?’ We have summarized these key insights into the following four takeaways.

Takeaway 1) Both panels indicate that policies should be built considering the needs and incentives of platform workers. If platform worker needs are not taken into account in policy making, then these solutions are unlikely to result in improved working conditions.

Takeaway 2) As discussed in the second panel, and in line with existing large-scale survey studies, platform work is partially a symptom of local institutional conditions, such as poor labor conditions and barriers to local labor market access. A holistic approach to regulating the platform economy should also address barriers to entering the labor market. If workers face significant barriers to entering the labor market, platform work, or other forms of piece-meal and unstable work, will continue to be attractive. Improving working conditions for platform workers who work in precarious forms of employment can decrease the reliance of workers on these platforms.

Takeaway 3) Many platforms that were discussed make workers dependent on their services and exert influence on working hours and habits. This power imbalance is a result of withholding of information from workers, algorithmic management and gamification, and through limiting forms and possibilities of collective action between workers. Having no unity between platform workers makes it hard for them to push back against precarious working conditions.

Takeaway 4) Workers are concerned that by entering formal employment status, they will lose control over their ability to determine their own working hours to accept or decline tasks. At the same time, they state that they face a lack of control when engaging in platform work. In discussions about entering formal employment and more stable employment conditions, it is therefore important to emphasize and consider the types of control that workers could have as employees.

[1] Agnieszka Piasna, Wouter Zwysen, Jan Drahokoupil. (2022, June 02). The platform economy in Europe. In ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute. and Organisation internationale du travail (Ed.). (2021). World employment and social outlook 2021: The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work. International labour organisation. and Yuri S. Scharp, Claartje ter Hoeven, Arnold B. Bakker, Marjan Gorgievski, Laura den Dulk, & Ferry Koster. (2022). De impact van platformwerk in Nederland.

[2] Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving working conditions in platform work, no. 2021/0414 (COD) (2021).

[3] Organisation internationale du travail (Ed.). (2021). World employment and social outlook 2021: The role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work. International labour organisation.