Degradation of employment relations is decades old in the CEE peripheries of the EU. It was common well before platform businesses, such as Uber, Wolt or Glovo, appeared on the scene. However, gig economy remained mostly invisible to the wider public until the pandemic hit.
Covid-19 deepened an already pervasive economic crisis, as both unemployment and social inequalities increased and it suddenly highlighted the significance of food curriers and other gig workers for the economy and society alike.
East Left Media Outlet – ELMO invited researchers, journalists, activists and artists engaged with this topic to map out key questions and methods of researching on and engaging with platform-based work in the CEE region.
The discussion was held on-line on 28th June 2021 as a closing-event to the “Gig work in CEE’s platform economy” article series that ELMO members have carried out in May in honour of the international labour day, May 1st and May as a month dedicated to workers’ struggles. Full discussion is available here.
Platform-based work in the CEE region was discussed by ELMO’s guests Branka Anđelković (Public Policy Research Center, Serbia), Tibor T. Meszmann (Central European Labor Studies Institute), David Schwarz (Political Theatre Platform, Romania), Marko Miletić (masina.rs, Serbia) and Jurgis Valiukevičius (May 1st labor union, Lithuania) and was moderated by Mariya Ivancheva (LeftEast, ELMO).
Is there anything specific to Platform-based gig work in CEE?
There is a rising interest in the topic of platform and gig economy since the Covid-19 pandemic made a whole world of work more visible. This world of work was made invisible on purpose, because there has been a lot of dumping down, casualisation of contracts that the platform and gig economy has often offered, pointed out Mariya Ivancheva during her introduction to the discussion.
Ivancheva, who is a sociologist and anthropologist and a member of the collectives LeftEast, ЛевФем / LevFem and EAST – Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational, said that during the preparatory work for the panel discussion the question that emerged was whether “there is anything more specific happening in East-Central Europe regarding gig work, given that precarity has not been anything new to the region and that trade union organizing has not been well established”.
The invited researchers, journalists, activists and artists engaged with platform and gig economy will participate in a conversation that will map out key questions and methods of dealing with the platform-basedwork in the CEE region. They will share their methodologies of research, art and militancy that might help to explain the discrepancy between the platform companies’ promises and the realities of the employment they provide, explained Ivancheva.
Tibor T. Meszmann, a researcher at the Central European Labour Studies Institute, and member of Hungary based Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet” offered five perspectives from which platform mediatedwork needs to be analysed.
The first perspective is historical and relates to the development of informality in East and Central Europe after 1989, said Meszmann. The second perspective is that of entrepreneurship. The third perspective should focus on various new forms of labour relationships which are appearing, while the fourth should deal with technology’s impact on society. Finally, the fifth perspective has to be aimed at the social groups which participate in gig work.
Branka Anđelković, a Co-founder and Programme Director of the Serbia based Public Policy Research Center think tank, presented Gig Meter, an instrument her organization created.
“Gig Meter, the instrument we created a year ago, gives you insight into gender, occupation and pay regarding gig activities in Southeast Europe on one platform which we believe to be representative of all gig work in the region”, said Anđelković.
In October 2020, after the strike of “Bolt food” workers in Lithuania, a branch of an union for food delivery couriers called the “Couriers’ association” was established as. Jurgis Valiukevičius, a chairperson of Lithuania based May 1st labour union (G1PS) is part of the organisation team of Couriers’ association.
The labour union entered into the sphere of gig work with the idea to start demanding the recognition of curriers as workers, but reactions surprised them, told Valiukevičius.
“The curriers themselves reacted negatively to the initiative to represent them as workers. The company told the curriers that the union is trying to take away flexibility. We made the error of not recognising that people value this flexibility even though their hours add up to regular work”, explained Valiukevičius.
The union had to change its approach. It had to find ways to relate to the entrepreneurial appeal of gig work, hence they’ve “started to speak more about the equality between business partners, to ask curriers if they feel equal in their relationship with the company”.
In Romania food delivery workers were a theme of the theatre play București Livrator, directed by David Schwartz. He is a cultural worker involved in numerous politically-engaged performing arts projects in Romania and the founder of the Political Theatre Platform (Stagiunea de Teatru Politic).
“During the pandemic many workers turned to gig work because of the lack of jobs in Romania, especially in services like hotels, bars and restaurants,”, told David Schwartz who has been conducting interviews and leading informal discussions with gig workers in Bucharest.
Many people work in the Bucharest gig economy. From students to the elderly, members of very different social groups try to fill the holes in their household budget or make a living from jobs such as food delivery. At the same time the companies such as Uber and Glovo operate via small local companies that act as intermediaries and recruit the curriers. Around half of the curriers Schwartz spoke to were hired with fake contracts and not registered with the tax authorities.
“Most of the curriers with the fake contracts didn’t care about this. I would keep asking what about pension, health insurance, and people would answer that they prefer to earn more money even if they are not insured. They would also ask me ‘how do we know that we’ll have pensions in 20 years’.”
Most of Schwartz’s interlocutors confirmed that they would participate in some form of solidarity action for gig workers, but they also said that it is difficult to see how it would be possible to negotiate with the companies, since the curriers are operating in a grey zone on fake contracts, and if they perform any act against company interest, the company just bans them from using the platform to get work.
Marko Miletić is a co-editor of the Serbian internet newspaper Mašina, which regularly publishes news and analysis regarding labour related issues, including gig work.
“We started writing about gig workers two years ago, after a photo of an injured currier appeared on social networks. We wrote about this incident from the perspective of endangered labour rights and since then we have been approached by gig workers several times when they were trying to solve problems with the platform companies”, said Miletić.
Serbian gig workers mostly complain about Glovo, the company which is expanding its operations in the region by taking over the smaller local competition. In Miletić’s view the delivery platform market in Serbia will be reduced to the duopoly of Wolt and Glovo.
The media mostly report on platform companies’ expansions and profit growth, and the curriers’ opportunity to earn high sums, but not on the labour issues in the delivery business, which are, in fact, covered by research, pointed out Miletić. Gig Workers confirmed that it is possible to earn a lot, but only if one works at least 12 hours every day of the month and has a motorcycle.
Different problems hunt the possibility of organizing among delivery gig workers. An example Miletić cited is the division among Belgrade curriers who drive bicycles and who deliver by car. Belgrade lacks biking infrastructure, so that the bike riders are primarily concerned with traffic safety, while those who use cars face the lack of parking space, and the two groups are in a conflict over the importance of these issues.
Trade unions that could help gig workers lack adequate models to organize in the platform economy. Nevertheless, Glovo curriers in Belgrade did manage to organize on two occasions.
“Glovo curriers organized on two occasions in order to fight for better working conditions. Their actions were primarily defensive and initiated at times when the company made changes to the use of their application”, explained Miletić.
This article is published in a collaboration with Eastern-European leftist media platforms ELMO – East Left Media Outlet.