Can a new Nordic online portal help protect digital economy workers?

Can a new Nordic online portal help protect digital economy workers?

Economist Fredrik Söderqvist at the Swedish union Unionen.

(Edwin Van Der Graaf )
Q&A

Call it the “sharing economy”, the “gig economy”, “crowd-based capitalism” or whatever else, there is a growing force of self-employed workers in need of representation and a more orderly web-based system of rules and regulations to avoid exploitation.

Sweden’s Unionen trade union is adapting to the changing labour market with an online portal that could serve as a model for others. Economist Fredrik Söderqvist at Unionen, after warning of growing inequality in the platform-based labour market, has authored a study, soon to be published in Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research, which calls on trade unions to adapt and integrate those workers or else lose an opportunity to play a vital role in the digital revolution.

“We propose creating a platform institution tasked to create digital standards and guidelines for firms wishing to abide by the rules and norms established by society,” the study says.

Both workers and employers can benefit from collective bargaining and regulation when necessary, says the study. Such a platform should not give a competitive advantage to ‘analog’ firms through social dumping and ‘unloading risks’ on the self-employed. That would justify regulatory intervention, the study says.

The following is Equal Times’ interview with Söderqvist on the ‘Nordic model’ and how it could be applied elsewhere.

Your study says that “as platforms enable firms to manage a decentralised workforce in a digital environment, union tactics need to evolve.” How can an online portal be a part of that?

Our approach is: the platform is the future; how can we make it work in the Nordic context? We need to make an adaptation of the rules. The [Swedish] government has a new digitalisation strategy, which vaguely says that social organisations have a responsibility to develop the platform economy. We want to get away from the “sharing” economy.

So how is it progressing?

It’s going well. The concept of a self-regulating institution is still on the drawing board. The rules are not highly digital. So we argue that if you sign up for these platforms, the rules will be more easily adaptable to your software and algorithms. Regulatory bodies should develop these standards of regulation with participants. It’s a tripartite thing [between the state, employers and workers]. We don’t see it as a big hurdle. I have the impression people are receptive on the left and right.

If unions don’t adopt online labour platforms, you say in your study that precarious workers will create their own organisations. Can you elaborate?

They already have. Last summer it happened at Deliveroo [the online delivery service] which changed terms in the United Kingdom overnight, causing a pay reduction, leading to a wildcat strike. They organised some type of union and crowdfunded a strike fund, building resentment against the Deliveroo platform.

In Sweden, transport unions are working on it. There has been consumer backlash, and restaurants using Deliveroo were also saying that they don’t want to use services that pay 39 kronors (US$4.45) per hour. It’s a very good occasion for unions to organise atypical workers. Our organisations are set up for work in a workplace, and the online platform allows us to organise a workforce that is more fragmented.

Which sectors are most likely to work through a joint portal?

I know of a handful of firms, both blue and white collar. We are seeing more and more platforms that are signing collective agreements in transport and delivery. Bzzt is a taxi service in Stockholm with small motorised tuktuks. Drivers have collective agreements. The white collar sector includes freelance media, copywriting and translation. In the long run, it’s a tool for employers to be more efficient.

Everyone had been staring blindly at Uber, but it’s not sustainable. The hope of including self-driving cars is crumbling, and there are huge costs from driver turnover, which requires more training.

How do you avoid exploitation and abuses with this system?

There have been a few government inquiries. They took a year and a half to look into the platform thing, and now it’s evolving very quickly. At Foodora [another food delivery service], there’s a hostile anti-union atmosphere, and the Work Environment Authority is doing a big investigation after an injury that was not reported until one year later, which is illegal. On the labour side,

Swedish growth is high, with employment at about 89 per cent. There are plenty of better job opportunities. But there are also a lot of former refugees. How do we get them into a labour market that puts a high emphasis on skills? Maybe an online labour platform is a good first step for those who are poorly paid, and with a very exposed position.

What are the obstacles? You say 90 per cent of the Swedish labour force is covered by collective wage and benefit agreements, a rate that is much lower elsewhere. How much could that impede the model in other countries?

It depends. Trade unions need to have a hard look at themselves. Are tactics from late 20th century working today? There is ‘right-to-work’ legislation in the US, and unions there in particular need to think about how they can represent their members, and more members in the new world of work? Legislators can play a role here.

Is it not a bit over-optimistic to think that the Ubers of the world will want to work with unions to create a labour platform?

A growing business means a growing slice of the pie. I see this as a pretext for union renewal. It’s legitimate self-regulation, with equal bargaining.