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September 19, 2018
The online platform: An economy with few worker protections

The online platform economy is an exploding phenomenon, which means the number of people performing work through the platform is also growing at an extraordinary rate. It is also clear that workers in the online platform economy are rarely protected by regulation, and therefore, the hazards to which they are exposed are often more severe than those encountered by workers in traditional places of work. What is not clear is who is or should be responsible for protecting the safety of these workers.

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This is a question that the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) addressed in its discussion paper, Protecting Workers in the Online Platform Economy: An overview of regulatory and policy developments in the EU. The paper concludes that there are no clear answers.

Many issues relating to the protection of online platform workers also exist in the United States. While several European states are taking measures to provide some protections to these workers, as yet, no clear path exists in the United States.

What is it?

The online platform economy is not a formal technical term and so has attracted many definitions. Generally speaking, it comprises digital locations where users can interact economically. Parties seeking services connect with workers offering services; in-person interviews generally do not occur. The job may be actual physical labor done at a physical location or strictly digital work. Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon are among many well-known entities occupying the online platform economy.

Outside the regulatory structure

EU-OSHA notes the apparent rule-avoiding behavior of many online platforms, and the perception—encouraged by some of the online platforms—that because their activities represent an entirely new business model resulting from rapid technological change, they should not be treated in the same way as any existing economic activities.

“Furthermore, this difficulty results in no small part from the fact that some aspects of online platform work do not fit easily into pre-established regulatory categories,” adds EU-OSHA.

All this has muddied the traditional employer-employee relationship and, by extension, issues related to worker rights and protections.  For example, EU-OSHA points out that online platform work may give rise to a range of both preexisting and new occupational risks, both physical and psychosocial. The fact that online platform workers have many similarities with both temporary workers and agency workers means that they are probably exposed to the same risks, with studies consistently showing higher injury rates among workers in these categories. Furthermore, protective measures tend to be more comprehensive and effective in workplaces with more workers; lone workers or homeworkers are generally seen as more exposed to hazards.

Furthermore, online platform workers tend to be younger, a recognized risk factor for occupational injury because these workers are less likely to undergo training. In addition, platform work, through the use of interworker competition and rating mechanisms, encourages a rapid pace of work without breaks, which may induce accidents. Job insecurity, known to contribute to poor overall health among atypical workers, is characteristic of online platform work.

Employment or self-employment?

The paper notes that some EU member states (e.g., Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) are attempting to apply existing worker protection standards to online platform work. This approach gives workers access to the courts and may even involve home inspections. But resolution of issues can be complex and typically involves case-specific analysis. Other countries (Belgium and Denmark) view online platform workers as self-employed, which means employment law does not apply.

EU-OSHA concludes that the critical step toward reducing risks to online platform workers is to clarify the employment relationship.

“Many jurisdictions make the application of regulatory standards and social protection dependent on the existence of a certain kind of employment relationship, requiring a varied range of features which are often devised to capture ‘dependency’, to the exclusion of independent self-employment,” states EU-OSHA. “The many (often combined) atypical features of online platform work make it difficult to easily categorize it as either employment or self-employment, and a case-by-case assessment of the reality of the relationship is often necessary.”

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