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An Uber Eats delivery rider waits for orders in Toulouse, France on February 25, 2021. © 2021 Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via AP

(Brussels) – The European Union should pass legislation that will bolster wage and labor protections for ride-share drivers, delivery riders, and other people working for digital labor platforms, Human Rights Watch said today. In December 2022, the European Parliament’s Employment Committee adopted amendments to the Platform Work Directive that represent the EU’s best effort yet to curb employment misclassification in the sector and develop world-leading safeguards against the abusive potential of workplace automation.

“Clear and strong rules against employment misclassification are needed to protect the rights of millions of workers who toil daily to provide essential services,” said Amos Toh, senior technology and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “EU lawmakers should also make clear that they will not tolerate the use of opaque and unaccountable technology to exploit workers.”

On December 12, the European Parliament’s Employment Committee adopted a set of revisions that strengthened labor protections in the directive proposed by the European Commission in 2021. This vote enables the Parliament to begin negotiations with the Council and the Commission on the final text. But members of Parliament can still challenge the text at a plenary session in January. EU member states have also been unable to reach an agreement on the text.

Human Rights Watch supports the compromise text adopted by the European Parliament’s Employment Committee, which would advance rights-respecting regulation of the digital platform work sector, and urges EU member states to endorse a similar approach. The Commission has counted 516 platforms operating across the Union, with taxi and delivery services capturing the biggest market share. It estimates that about 28 million people work for these platforms, and that this number will grow to 43 million by 2025.

The compromise text agreed to on December 12 would establish a clear legal presumption that workers for digital labor platforms are in an employment relationship with the platforms, as opposed to self-employed independent contractors. Employee status would entitle these workers to specific national protections that help ensure their rights to an adequate standard of living and safe and healthy working conditions, such as the minimum wage, due process in dismissal procedures, and guaranteed work hours.

Employees would also have the right to collectively bargain for better working conditions and fair wages. In some countries, digital platforms that hire workers as employees would also be required to make contributions to social protection and pension programs.

These protections are urgently needed to shore up workers’ incomes and job security amid a cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel costs, Human Rights Watch said. According to Fairwork Foundation, a UK-based research institute focused on platform work conditions, four of the six most popular app-based services in France and three of the five in Belgium fail to guarantee their workers the local minimum wage. In Spain, trade union representatives say that delivery riders, many of them migrant workers, earn as little as €3 per delivery, forcing them to work 12-hour days to make ends meet. And in Germany, the financial strain on delivery workers has become so severe that a group of them has started a fund to support struggling colleagues.

To rebut the presumption of employment, the compromise text would require platforms to establish that workers are both free from their “control and direction” while performing services for them, and also provide similar services independent of the platform. Human Rights Watch has found that several major platforms employ a range of technologies and behavioral strategies to manage and control workers, while maintaining the illusion that they work independently.

The Parliament’s position on the directive lists some of these features, such as the use of opaque algorithms to assign work and calibrate pay, and ratings systems that reward or penalize workers’ performance, as indications of the app’s “control and direction” that affirm the presumption of an employment relationship.

The directive would also draw clear red lines on the use of automated decision-making to monitor and penalize platform workers. It would prohibit platforms from delegating decisions to terminate, suspend, or otherwise restrict workers’ accounts to automated systems, requiring instead that such decisions be governed by national law, or that workers and platforms reach a collective agreement on the appropriate framework for such decisions. It would also bar platforms from requiring workers to submit to facial recognition and other biometric identification checks to access their work accounts.

Requiring platforms to comply with national law or collective bargaining agreements on dismissals would mitigate the threat of abrupt and harmful disruptions to workers’ livelihoods. Worker Info Exchange, a UK-based workers’ rights group, has found that many ride-share drivers are being unfairly dismissed after their employer’s anti-fraud algorithms incorrectly assume that drivers with two mobile devices are fraudulently sharing their account.

The directive as amended by the Parliament would also enable workers to have a meaningful say in how their work is mediated by technology, requiring digital platforms to consult with them before introducing changes in automated decision-making that “significantly affect” working conditions. Additionally, platforms would be required to disclose material information about how they use automated systems to monitor and regulate working conditions, such as to allocate tasks and evaluate workers’ performance.

“Workers for digital platforms should be protected from unsafe and unfair working conditions that expose many to economic hardship,” said Toh. “Regulation needs to catch up with realities on the ground, if we are to move toward rights-respecting labor markets in the EU.”

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