Gig economy on the rise in Eastern European countries. First labour organizations and unions of platform workers appear

Platform workers in Eastern European countries face similar problems like their colleagues in Serbia. Does the forming of the first trade unions and other workers' organizations suggest a possibility of international organizing?

Platform work and the so-called gig economy became unavoidable dimensions of contemporary working life.

These methods of engaging workers rely on technological possibilities of the internet, collapse of labour legislation and unionizing, and the disappearance of classic jobs in many countries.

Many of those who make their living via platforms are in fact workers, but the socioeconomic system fails to recognize them as such, treating them instead as small entrepreneurs. This places a disproportionate burden and responsibility on the shoulders of part-time workers who remain outside the scope of labour legislation.

A typical example of this are platforms for delivery of goods and passenger transport which don’t have to provide their drivers and delivery workers with an employment contract thanks to the described business model.

Two Hungarian delivery platforms, Netpincér and Wolt, recorded a significant increase in number of engaged delivery workers during the pandemic, reports Mérce.

This intensified competition among the delivery drivers and the struggle for the few terms in the day when it is possible to earn decent wages, as the people who talked to Mérce explained. One of them elaborated the position of the delivery workers like this:

“This system in which we are supposed to work is frightening and the strife between us suppliers is constant. Many have been hired during the pandemics, and it is clear that there will be fewer orders as soon as the measures are lifted. I’m afraid that a very tricky battle for good terms is around the corner. This whole concept of forced entrepreneurship is horrible. You can’t have a normal vacation: if you’re not present for two weeks, you’re out, the algorithm puts you in worse groups. All of this makes the atmosphere constantly tense.”

Currently organizing for better socioeconomic position of platform workers in Hungary is weak. According to the article published by Mérce, on the one hand organizing is poor because platform work is a relatively new phenomenon in Hungary and still relates to a small percentage of the workforce. On the other hand, there is still no significant trade union activity in the gig economy in general.

Regarding platform workers’ organizing, the situation is somewhat different in Croatia, where the Independent Trade Union of Taxi Drivers has recently been established.

The Independent Trade Union of Taxi Drivers brings together Uber and Bolt drivers, independent taxi drivers and taxi drivers working for domestic companies. By founding the union, a part of the platform workers created a workers’ organisation that represents their interests.

According to a report published by Radnička prava, the immediate reason for unionizing was the slump of driving prices caused by the companies that own platforms. The workers Radnička prava talked to confirm that they barely manage to make ends meet currently.

“The pandemics caused drop in the volume of work of approximately 70%”, Goran Črešnjek from the Independent Trade Union of Taxi Drivers shared with Radnička prava.

A driver, who drives for Bolt, Uber and independently, says that the situation has drastically worsened since 2019.

“If you want to make any money you have to work an average of 12 hours a day. That’s terrible capitalist exploitation – the initial stage of capitalism. For both Uber and Bolt we are all slaves.”

It is expected that amendments to the Croatian Labour Law will include platform work.

In Lithuania, the situation delivery platform workers find themselves in is similar to that in Hungary. There are a few periods every day during which the wages are good, mostly during breakfast and dinner, explains a driver Nara approached. But, whoever wants to remain eligible for good terms in the eyes of the platform algorithm has to work most of the day.

When part of the delivery drivers in Lithuania decided to initiate a work stoppage in order to shut down the application at a certain time, Bolt Food responded by lowering the price of labour.

Delivery drivers in Lithuania realized that they needed a stronger organization in order to create a stronger negotiating position in relation to the company, so an association of delivery drivers was formed. One of their basic requirements is that the platform invests in increasing the safety of delivery drivers at work.

Recently we wrote about how establishing connections with trade unions and civil society organizations is proving to be key to organizing platform workers. Given that platforms are owned by transnational companies, and since the position of platform workers is similar in many countries, unions and associations also have a basis for international organizing that could put more pressure on platform owners.


This article was written as a part of a cooperation between Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (East Left Media Outlet)

Translation: Iskra Krstić

This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on May 12, 2021.


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