The platform economy discussion at the ILO: first a failure, now a future?

29 November 2022

In October 2022 discussions in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) meeting of experts on decent work in the platform economy collapsed.

The experts were considering whether an international labour standard to address the nature of platform work was necessary to make decent work a reality for platform workers. Twenty-four experts, representing the tripartite structure of the ILO (8 employers, 8 workers and 8 governments), deliberated over four days but no conclusions were reached, primarily due to extreme employer opposition.

Yet, just one month later the ILO’s Governing Body approved an International Labour Conference (ILC) discussion on this issue for 2025; a quick U-turn for those unfamiliar with the protracted processes of the ILO. The pathway to a future convention to address the plight of platform workers across the globe is now back on the cards. The question is – will progress be made towards providing better protections for digital platform workers? Or will the employers continue to frustrate progress?

Origins and evolutions

The origin of the discussion around an international labour standard for platform work owes itself to a decision in 2018 at the ILO’s International Labour Conference (ILC), the so-called “world parliament of labour”. This required the ILO to “continue research regarding the access to freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining of digital platform and gig economy workers and, on that basis … [the] Governing Body to decide whether convening a tripartite meeting would be appropriate or not”.

During the ILO’s centenary year in 2019 fractious deliberation took place on the concept of a universal labour guarantee, which would set minimum standards that apply to all workers including the creation of an “international governance system for digital labour platforms”. Whilst the universal guarantee was refused by the employers as something that was “utopian and makes no sense” there was agreement to put in practice “policies and measures that ensure appropriate privacy and personal data protection, and respond to challenges and opportunities in the world of work relating to the digital transformation of work, including platform work”.

At the ILO Governing Body meeting in March 2021, agreement was reached to meet over the issue of decent work in the platform economy, with the possibility of standard-setting to follow. Whilst this would depend upon consensus between tripartite constituents, it meant a new international labour standard on platform economy could have been discussed as early as 2025 and adopted the year after. Following which, the standard would be open to ratification by member states who will undertake to apply the Convention in national law and practice and to report on its application at regular intervals.

The scene was therefore set for the ILC’s October 2022 meeting with a broad number of points for discussion on platform work raised. These ranged from classification status, to working conditions, from challenges to freedom of association, to collective bargaining. The subsequent ILO report stressed that “online platform workers today have fewer instruments to protect them […] and consideration might therefore be given to whether this objective could be resolved through international intervention” (i.e. an international labour standard).

Outside of the ILO a global ‘Manifesto for Fairer Platform Work’ was signed by more the 224 academics. Employers were well represented with Uber, Walmart, Adecco, the World Employment Confederation all represented and led by a lawyer from a law firm with a record of advising companies “to ‘push back’ against ‘pro-labour’ legislation before their employees start unionizing their workplaces”.

Reminiscent of other discussions at the ILO, during the meeting the employers presented their own evidence and criticised the ILO background report. They argued that the solution for the risks that the platform economy creates cannot “be found in applying generic global standards across a diversity of platforms” and that they were adamantly opposed to future standard-setting. More research was needed, they argued, before standard-setting on platform work could take place before withdrawing from the meeting late on the final day.  In light of the fact that  government and worker experts appear to be open to standard-setting, the employers’ standards-resistant behaviour was described by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) legal director as “disgraceful”.

First as tragedy, then as farce

The ILO is often metaphorized as a car in which the workers act as the engine, governments as the steering wheel, and employers as the brakes. There is both historical and contemporary evidence to support this claim. For example the Convention on Homework in 1996 did not get the support of employers, who in this case even withdrew from the discussions on the instrument even after it had been agreed to be placed on the agenda of the ILC. Soon after this, a protracted attempt to produce a Convention on Contract Labour also failed in the face of employer opposition

More contemporaneously, the platform discussions mirror other contentious deliberations in the ILO and signal a worrying trend of employer withdrawal and a shift in power in favour of the employers in the organisation. Similar to what we found in our research on global supply chains, the employers are increasingly apt at promoting alternative “evidence”, filibustering the debate, and finding a multitude of routes to break down ILO processes.

As I argued elsewhere, employers are well versed in engaging in different forms of contestation. For example, suspending debates and challenging the demarcation of discussions around the cause and effects of the impact of platform economy on decent work, and how this impacts the ILO’s role. The fact that is often portrayed as manipulation and domination of the discussion can lead to a breakdown in the deliberative processes of ILO.

Breaking the deadlock

As with anything in the ILO, no discussion truly dies. The overwhelming government support, both at the centenary declaration in 2019 and in the October meeting, has left the door open to future standard setting. The ILO’s Governing Body acts as a proverbial safety net to failed discussions. Just one month later the ILO placed decent work in the platform economy back on the agenda for the 113th Conference Session (2025). The nature of this item, whether a ‘general’ or standard-setting discussion, will be decided in March 2023. This is only the end of the beginning. Even if a standard was finally discussed in 2025 and adopted in 2026, the standard would come into ‘force’ in 2027 and then, most importantly, would require member states to ratify and implement into their national law. However, the success, or otherwise, of the ILO’s action on the platform economy cannot be overstated – it will speak volumes for the continuing relevance of the Organization and for the prospects of decent work for platform workers around the globe.

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