Platform work“Fight for something more than just a Directive”

Many young workers delivering food or driving cars are technically not even employed. How can a trade union work to improve their conditions? Tea Jarc, president of Slovenian union Mladi Plus, has worked for years advocating for them. And she has seen enough to be afraid of the platform companies’ lobbying power.

Tea Jarc mit Wollmütze
Tea Jarc bei einer Demonstration gegen Uber 2016 / Tea Jarc at a protest against Uber 2016. – Alle Rechte vorbehalten IMAGO / Pixsell

This interview is also available in German.

Mladi Plus is a trade union in Slovenia with an unconventional approach, focusing on young people. This means dealing with the digital platform companies like Uber where more and more young people work. Tea Jarc is President of Mladi Plus. We spoke to her about the conditions of leading a trade union for young platform workers and the current efforts of the EU to lay down rules for this type of work. What is special about Mladi Plus?

Tea Jarc: Mladi Plus is a Slovenian trade union for high school students, students and young unemployed people and precarious workers. It’s not a traditional trade union. We do not work with just one sector of workers, we work with young people who are in their transition from education to employment. They are either still students or unemployed or they have some temporary, short-term jobs. Mladi Plus has existed since 2011 and is part of the biggest trade union confederation in Slovenia.

“Platform work has been the number one priority for the past two years” What is your role and how did you get there?

Tea Jarc: I joined in 2014 as a young unemployed person. Before, I was already involved in other youth organizations and following the topic of youth unemployment a lot. I’ve been an activist for years before I became president.

The aim of Mladi Plus is to really reach out to young people. Because we realized, especially after the financial crisis starting in 2008, that there are more and more young unemployed people or young precarious workers and that nobody actually organizes them.

We used to work mainly on internships. But then we managed to ban unpaid internships in Slovenia, and right now we are trying to address new topics that are popping up. Platform work has been the number one priority for the past two years, because the number of platform workers is increasing and we want to cater to the needs of those workers. Why is platform work so relevant for young people specifically?

Tea Jarc: Because it’s not only, but mostly young people working for platforms. We can see that at least in Slovenia young people start working for platforms, often as students, and then they continue for a long time. But it depends on the kind of work. In Slovenia there is an increase of platform work in the care sector, where it’s not so many young people.

Of course, I’m a trade unionist, but I will always be the one who is critical of the trade union movement and sometimes it looks like we are very old organizations with old structures and old ways of doing things. We want to change this. We want to modernize trade unions. We want to be fast in responding to the needs of the labour markets. We are willing to adapt to the changes and find our place in changing society. What do other trade unions have to say about that?

Tea Jarc: To be honest, in our ten-year history we had a lot of fights with other trade unions who were doubtful that we were really a trade union.

It starts with recruitment. Normally, trade unions gather workers from one workplace. We do not have this kind of privilege. We cannot just go to one place and expect that young people are there and they’re going to join us. We have to go wherever those workers are, for example at the public employment office. Or we chase the delivery riders on the street, literally chase them, and try to approach them.

“Our work is different”

We are also communicating very differently. Of course, we’re young, so maybe we are more provocative. We are not afraid to be very critical, also towards the government. We are way more present on social media, because we know that’s where young people are. This is also one of the reasons why young people know us and why they join us, because they see us as being a very cool trade union (laughs), who actually has the guts to tell the government whatever we believe needs to be said.

Our work is different, but at the end of the day, we still do negotiations. We do collective bargaining. We represent the workers. We also offer legal help to our members, counseling or legal representation in case of disputes.

I would say that right now, Mladi Plus is the most known trade union in Slovenia and is doing a pretty good job. Some sceptics also had to accept that. The EU institutions are currently negotiating a Directive on the future of work on platforms, like Deliveroo, Uber and so on. When did Mladi Plus start to get involved in this topic?

Tea Jarc: When it comes to platform work in general, I would say that we are very active since 2014, because at that time there were a lot of court decisions involving Uber. Our government wanted to bring Uber to Slovenia. They would have needed to change the legislation, because of course Uber does things under their own conditions. With some other trade unions we managed to influence the government so that they didn’t change the legislation. They didn’t open the door for them.

Unfortunately, this changed last year with the very far right government who opened the door. But for years we were preventing this platform from being active here and exploiting workers.

Of course, in Slovenia, in comparison to other European countries, the increase in platform work in recent years was quite light. The delivery drivers are the most visible actors, because they are on the street all the time. They just came to Slovenia a couple of years ago and their number really increased during the pandemic.

In that time, we were the first one responding. We invested a lot of time into getting to know them and understanding the situation, especially in the delivery sector. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do this for all sectors. But we are trying to enlarge our research, for example to the care sector that I mentioned before. Mladi Plus was part of the negotiations with the European Commission before they published their proposal for the planned Directive in December. What was your goal?

Tea Jarc: We were mostly involved in the work through the European Trade Union Confederation ETUC. For the ETUC this is one of the top priorities of the past years and especially this year.

From the beginning, the main goal was to recognize platforms as employers and platform workers as employees, which means they should have basic workers‘ and social rights. The challenge is that platforms do not recognize their role as an employer and are avoiding their responsibilities.

We knew that we are talking about multinational corporations that are basically blackmailing different states to negotiate some kind of special status for themselves. But because the labour market is already so fragmented and we have so many different categories of workers, we didn’t want to allow this to happen to the platform workers as well.

Our aim was, first of all, to have a European Directive to regulate the platforms. Because otherwise it would be left up to the trade unions or workers in each individual country to fight for themselves.

We then saw that in many of the countries, when workers were fighting, they had to prove all this in front of a court, which took ages. It became clear that we wanted to have a reverse burden of proof in the Directive. The assumption is that there is an employment relationship, so that workers do not have to prove it again and again in front of courts individually. If a platform thinks that this doesn’t apply to them, it’s up to the platform to actually prove that.

Afraid of the platforms‘ lobby power Looking at the proposal that the European Commission published in the end, it seems to me that the ETUC did a very good job convincing the Commission of its views. In most parts, it seems to be very close to the trade unions’ proposals. Would you agree?

Tea Jarc: Yes, I would say it’s quite okay. It’s still not perfect. The Commission proposal says very clearly that if this Directive gets adopted, it will only change the lives of five million platform workers. But there are more than twenty million of them around Europe. Because of this, we are not as successful as we hoped to be, because it means there is a whole bunch of platform workers out there who are still somewhere in the middle.

Right now, we are in the process of working with the Member States. The Commission did their job. Now it’s up to the Member States to either give some kind of positive feedback, to improve the proposal, or to reject it.

We have been working with the European Parliament as well. Before we saw the Directive from the Commission side, we got a very ambitious resolution from the European Parliament addressing platform work.

Nevertheless, I can honestly say that we are very afraid of the platforms because we know how powerful they are. They are very present in Brussels, they are lobbying to present their opinion. They weren’t involved in many of the consultation processes that we were part of, and they weren’t as vocal about it in the media as we were, so we assume that they are doing their job behind the curtain. Platforms are claiming that they support European legislation no matter what it says, because it will reduce the number of lawsuits that they are involved in. Does this line up with how platforms currently act on the ground?

Tea Jarc: Not at all (laughs). Because if they were really willing, they would just avoid those kind of lawsuits by respecting national legislation and by employing the workers. The number of lawsuits is huge, when you look at all the different countries. And I can imagine that it is a burden for them as well. It doesn’t help to increase their reputation to be sued so many times and to actually lose in court.

But if they keep saying so when it comes to the adoption of the Directive, then fine. I can imagine that it is exhausting for these multinational corporations to follow every national legislation and understand it. So maybe the Directive is going to make their life a little easier as well.

“Things can still be changed during the negotiations” What are your hopes and fears for the rest of the negotiations in the Parliament and the Council?

Tea Jarc: The main fear definitely lies with the Member States, meaning with the Council. We are in touch with different ministries of labour and other officials, but it looks like this Directive might not be the top priority for many of the member states. Especially looking at the current presidency, France and Czechia and so on.

We’re not getting such passionate feedback from them (laughs), especially Macron, he’s not really into this topic. And from the Czechs, it’s very hard to expect something progressive as well. And we know that if they don’t pick it up, we could just have this proposal waiting for years and years. So our fear is that we might wait for a very long time for this to be implemented.

Also things can still be changed during the negotiations. How will the platforms continue to lobby, either at the national or the European level? Will it be watered down, or will it even be improved? We are trying to influence this, but you never know.

Our hope on the trade union side is, that workers join trade unions and recognize what they can achieve if they fight collectively. Because even if the Directive is being adopted and then implemented at the national level, this is not going to end the fight. Because platform workers should fight for something more than just a Directive. And then comes collective bargaining and collective agreements and, hopefully, one day, really taking care of their conditions.

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