The rumblings on the working conditions of those engaged in local digital platform work have been around for some time. Last February one of them, a 28-year-old Nepalese, was involved in a fatal traffic accident in Marsa when on a food delivery trip.
This is not just a local issue. The matter is also on the radar of the European Union which is considering the introduction of an EU wide Directive “on improving the working conditions in platform work”.
An impact assessment drawn up as an EU Commission staff working document emphasises that some of those working through digital platforms face poor working conditions and inadequate access to social protection. A number of them, says the impact assessment, are falsely classified as self-employed. As a result of the misclassification of their employment status they tend to lose various rights and protections. These include rights relative to working time, minimum wage (including the statutory bonus payable in June and December), paid annual leave, paid sick leave, parental leave and occupational health and safety.
The industrial action by Bolt food couriers last week brought to light the plight of local platform workers. “Almost nobody knows what we must go through just so that they get their food quickly” one of the couriers was quoted as saying.
It is not so well known that the food courier platform operators, in addition to collecting the delivery charges, collect substantial commissions from the food outlets which they serve. At times, I am informed that this may be as high as 30 per cent of the value of the delivery food. It was pointed out to me that this commission charged is at times evident in a discrepancy between the prices quoted online and those displayed at the food outlets themselves!
It has to be underlined that these substantial commissions do not end up in the pockets of the food couriers but in the bank accounts of the platform operators!
Some of the couriers are paid at a miserly rate of €2 per delivery, at times even less. The lucky ones can get as much as €2.50 per delivery or slightly better! This signifies that they must work very long hours to try and earn a very basic income on which to exist. To make matters worse, in those cases where the couriers are “independent” or “falsely” classified as self-employed they end up paying their own expenses. As a consequence, they end up much worse off!
This is twenty first century slave labour. It is in fact digital slave labour!
After the industrial action last week, some catering establishments have voiced their concerns as the action taken by the food courier platform workers has at the end of the day impacted their bottom line too. I do not recall hearing their concern on utilising digital slave labour: they did so without qualms. They had no second thoughts or pangs of conscience.
The catering establishments are not directly responsible for the manner in which digital platform work operates. However, the fact that they make use of it renders them complicit in the slave labour industry being developed to satisfy their bottom lines. They make it possible.
Last week’s industrial action was an eye opener for all, including those who feigned ignorance as to what was going on. Now is the time for all round action. This must also include action on the part of consumers who should not use the services of those who keep encouraging and making use of digital slave labour.
Published in The Malta independent – Sunday 7 August 2022