Productivity at the cost of security in gig employment in Italy: the need for adequate labour protection

Productivity at the cost of security in gig employment in Italy: the need for adequate labour protection

Augustine Hacques 
Researcher, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

The emergence of the so-called “gig” or “platform” economy has been drastically changing the labour market’s dynamics. Gig workers now make up a large portion of big corporations’ employment contracts. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped fuel the gig economy’s expansion as many people have found themselves with self-employment as their last financial resort. Although it promises a great degree of independence to freedom-seeking self-employees or workers seeking an alternative income to counter the current economic recession, the downside of this productivity-driven race against the clock is often undervalued.

 

The Italian case: a harbour for gig employment platforms

After an investigation launched in July 2019, a Milan court found this February that four different delivery platforms (i.e. Uber Eats, Glovo, Just Eat and Deliveroo) had been providing insufficient protection to their gig employees, and obliged them to submit to poor working conditions. The court thus ordered the companies to pay a fine of 733 million euros and hire up to 60,000 employees to avoid criminal proceedings.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), one main drawback to the gig economy is that by labelling workers as freelancers or self-employed, businesses do not have to contribute to social security systems when engaging in gig employment, as they are not obliged to provide mandatory social coverage to freelance employees.

Most prone to this type of employment are companies like the aforementioned, which hire gig workers to facilitate their delivery capacities and efficiency. However, due to the very nature of such contracts, it is quite widespread that gig employees are exposed to limited labour protection.

This case exemplifies that the need for companies to adequately comply with workers safety and health regulations does extend to self-employed workers and should not be overlooked. Following this decision, Uber Eats Italy decided to adopt a new protocol to strengthen the health and safety protection of its delivery workers, since gig employment policies using crowd-working platforms are not regulated by the government but rather by the contracting company. According to the United Nations General Principles and ILO standards, businesses employing gig workers should always ensure sufficient protection. While remedies are provided by the hiring platforms, they are rarely achieved in practice.

According to the United Nations General Principles and ILO standards, businesses employing gig workers should always ensure sufficient protection.

 

Similar to most European countries, self-employed workers in Italy are responsible for their own tax income and social security contributions. Similarly, anti-discrimination laws often do not necessarily apply to self-employed workers. They are particularly vulnerable to discrimination as most platforms offer a ranking system based on the client’s arbitrary judgment, which will directly affect their employment opportunities.
 

Attempts at mediation and reform of the self-employment labour protection framework

In this light, a parliamentary act aiming to address this regulatory gap introduced a new labour and social rights reform in 2017. This act, although providing new labour protection requirements for gig employment, has been widely criticized by unions for its lack of tangibility regarding health and safety standards. With the exponential growth of e-commerce during the ongoing pandemic, gig platforms have seen their solicitation and profits skyrocket, suddenly putting them in the spotlight. Consequently, amidst the rising concern of unions over labour exploitation, the Italian Ministry of Labour decided to mediate the dialogue between companies and unions. This eventually led to the establishment of a tailored protocol to protect workers against unlawful business practices.

From a governmental standpoint, Italy, as a result of the uproar caused by the pressure put on companies by unions, decided to undertake the drafting of new regulations for the protection of gig workers by engaging in social dialogue. This was done in collaboration with Spain. They further strive to address the strengthening of gig employment and digital platforms regulation at the European Union level during the G20 this June.

Health and safety norms should be extended to all types of workers in order to ensure indiscriminate protection regardless of the type of employment relationship.

In parallel, the recent push for reform in the gig sector has enabled the increase of court rulings ordering businesses to change the status of their workers from self-employed to employees within the European Union. On the 16th of February 2021, Amsterdam’s Court of Appeals ruled that Deliveroo couriers were employees and not self-employed. This was closely followed by a judgement from the UK Supreme Court on February 19, 2021, concluding that Uber drivers were to be considered as workers and not independent third-party contractors.

 

Prospecting solutions for improved protection:

On the one hand, designing a third intermediary category at the crossroad of employment and self-employment for this particular sector could be a promising avenue in order to better address gig labour protection and the specificities of on-demand work, where workers are often more vulnerable to discrimination and have access to fewer remedies. On the other hand, the creation of a new classification can be difficult, especially in the context of gig employment, where it is hard to identify the main source of income of on-demand workers and thus create a reliable employment status assessment. Another suggestion could be to extend health and safety norms to all types of workers in order to ensure indiscriminate protection regardless of the type of employment relationship.

Against this backdrop, a strategy supported by the Italian Minister of Labour and Social Policies Andrea Orlando could be the facilitation of dialogue and communication between the different actors involved in labour protection, in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the major underlying issues in gig employment. If companies, governments and unions cooperate in their efforts on occupational health and safety conditions, protection standards could be enforced more holistically and with greater transparency and regulation.

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