One More Reason Why Labour Should Never Go to Davos

(In)famous platforms of labour matching, such as Uber, Deliveroo, Postmates, and Cabify agreed, under the umbrella of the World Economic Forum annual meeting in the Swiss Alps, to commit to some “key principles that in their view should underpin platform work” contained in the Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work.

Under the WEF umbrella, and taking advantage of the flashes and glamour of #Davos2020, where the ultra-rich and powerful were discussing, for instance, “Tech for Good” (bites of caviar - not Iranian, of course - and sips of champagne permitting), some of the most (in)famous platforms of labour matching, such as Uber, Deliveroo, Postmates, and Cabify, decided to commit to some “key principles that in their view should underpin platform work” contained in the so-called Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work.

This Charter begins with a declaration embellishing the benefits of platforms, which in its first point highlights that “Digital work/services platforms are […] helping many platform workers to achieve economic security, greater control over their working hours and develop new skills”.

Nothing could be further from the truth - reliable evidence demonstrates how the digital work/services platforms deteriorate working conditions, exploiting vulnerable workers to the fullest.

It’s also ironic to read on the Charter that “It is important that platform workers are classified appropriately under the law and suitable regulation provided for these forms of work and services”, whereas at the same time, in its own definition of “platform workers”, a footnote indicates: “The use of ‘worker’ is generic and is not intended to have any employment connotation; it does not imply the employment law definition of a worker in certain countries.

We could further analyse the Charter but it's mostly nonsensical, so instead of wasting your time here, we encourage you to read it and reach your own conclusions.

However, we would like to stress two points.

First, the Charter is simply a deliberate attempt, a marketing tool, to improve the image and reputation of these companies without really committing to anything.

Unlike the International Framework Agreements (IFAs) agreed between global labour federations (GUFs) and multinational companies, and most CSR instruments adopted unilaterality by the latter, the Charter doesn’t contain a single mention of the ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the UNGP, or any major UN human rights or ILO instruments; it’s completely without substance.

This attitude also shows the disdain of these companies for social dialogue, workers’ rights and human rights. It’s like when Saudi Arabia organises a high-profile sporting event, such as the Dakar, or a football match allowing women in the (specially designated family) stands, imagining that we’ll forget that they’re bombing children in Yemen or that they tortured journalist Jamal Khashoggi and chopped him into small pieces. By the way, one of the main Uber backers is the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund – which invested $3.5 billion in Uber in 2016 and owns 5.4% of the company.

The Charter is part of a damage-control op to counteract the effects of the many judicial decisions in different jurisdictions that recently stated that platform workers are “employees” (and therefore entitled to rights such as social security) – not individual contractors, as these companies pretend.

We must not forget that Uber and Postmates – two of the “founding members” of the Charter, recently sued to get California Assembly Bill 5 declared unconstitutional. This law, which was set to go into effect on January 1, 2020, requires gig-economy workers to be reclassified as employees instead of contractors. The law was passed by an overwhelming majority in both the State Senate and Assembly in September 2019. After that, Uber, its competitor Lyft, and food delivery service DoorDash, committed US$ 90 million to fight against the legislative measure. That should clear any doubt about the real intentions of these companies.

Second, and the reason why labour should never go to Davos (not this time, not in the past, and hopefully not in the future), is that by going there we accomplish nothing. On the contrary, union participation in Davos is legitimizing the idea that it’s a participatory and democratic forum, when it’s actually the opposite, and by being there labour is simply co-opted.

Davos is a stage for and by the people who pull the strings of this world, those who heavily lobby and try to subvert governments and multilateral institutions. It’s moulded according to their timing and needs. They hear what they want, when they want, and they would only change things on condition that they have to change nothing – a perfect alchemist formula that won’t diminish their wealth, position and/or reputation. The WEF brokered Charter is just another example of that, and though we can’t say labour endorsed it, it happened in Davos where labour was present.

If we want to change things – and have no doubts that we want that – it’s not in forums such as Davos where we’re going to achieve it. It’s in the streets of Seoul, Paris, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Beirut. It’s through the ILO, the UN, the OECD maybe; forums in which we not only have a say, but in which we’re respected for what we do.