Fixing the regulation to clarify the status of platform workers

Taxi stop in Helsinki

by Arseniy Svynarenko


The UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers weren’t self-employed and must be treated as workers. Uber promises to maintain flexibility of the drivers and give them some new rights and protections. In every country Uber adjust its practices to local legal context, sometimes exploding the grey areas in legislation. It takes a lot of effort for unions and time for governments to fix the regulation and clarify the obligations of platforms, status of platform workers, and their rights.  

A milestone for platform economy? 

On February 19, 2021, after the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers weren’t self-employed and must be treated as workers by Uber. Right after this ruling Jamie Heywood, Uber’s Regional General Manager for Northern and Eastern Europe commented that, Court’s decision was “focussed on a small number of drivers who used the Uber app in 2016”.  (BBC, 2021).  A month later Uber announced introducing Worker Employment Benefits to all 70,000 self-employed drivers: “You will continue to have total flexibility, meaning you can choose if, when and where you work, while accessing new rights and protections.” (Uber, 2021) 

   These new rights and protections will include: 

  1. the minimum wage (the National Living Wage) for the working time that starts from accepting a trip on the app to the completion of the trip. 
  1. right to paid holiday (drivers will receive a payment of 12.07% of driver’s earnings)  
  1. Uber will automatically enrol drivers into a pension plan with contributions shared by Uber and a worker. 

The new practises adopted by Uber in the UK only partly comply with Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court ruled that Uber should recognize drivers as “workers” from the time they log on to the app, until they log off. Instead, Uber limited the working time to the period between driver accepting a ride till the completion of the ride. This means that time between the rides is not a paid working time. On the other hand, it also means that drivers have kept a freedom to choose to work in short gigs with multiple ride-haling platforms and other jobs as regular taxi drivers elsewhere. Their working time with Uber will not overlap with other jobs. Most likely, the full implementation of the Supreme Court decision in regards the working time would lead to the introduction of fixed work shifts by Uber and hereby further reduce already very limited job flexibility. 

It is important to keep in mind that the UK Supreme Court ruling directly pointed out the limited rights of drivers: drivers couldn’t decide the fare, or influence the contract terms, drivers were penalized for rejecting the rides, and the platform would control them through algorithms (ratings, vehicle requirements, photo controls of driver’s identity, documents and vehicle). It is unlikely that Uber will address these issues because the algorithmic control and task allocation is in the core of its technology. And ride-hailing and food delivery platform technology is built on the assumptions that there is a massive supply of cheap and highly flexible labour force, while most of responsibilities for accompanying expenses are shifted to these workers. Labour platforms strive towards monopolisation of markets, reducing the cost of services and expanding of customer base.  

As a result, the digital platforms too often treat workers as employees while continuing to refer to them as independent contractors and glamorizing individual urban entrepreneurship. In an interview to BBC4 James Farrar, who together with Yaseen Aslam and the App Drivers & Courier Union, took Uber to an employment tribunal in 2016) said: “These better terms and conditions … will attract many more people on the platform, … we could see flooding of drivers and vehicles on the streets. … A better regulation from the side of the Department of labour is needed.” (BBC 4, 2021) 

Indeed, lean platforms such as Uber exploit the gaps in legislation (Srnicek, 2017, Rosenblat, 2018) that allow to minimize platform’s expenses on labour force, shift most of responsibilities to an army of “flexible” workers-partners. The UK’s Supreme Court ruling to classify Uber drivers as workers may bring some benefits to drivers but falls short of resolving probably one of central the problems in the platform work: clarity of workers occupational identity. Furthermore, the response by the Uber to the Supreme Court’s ruling probably aggravated the problem of workers identity. Uber gave drivers access to some of benefits of employment without concluding employment contracts. Uber continues the same practices of algorithmic control and workers-contractors have virtually no influence on fares, contract terms. There is no transparency on how work methods and ratings effect the access to work. The ride-hailing continues to identify drivers as “self-employed for tax purposes” while treating them as employees. Apparently, the UK’s labour law allows to do so. As for workers, their confused occupational identity may result in low job satisfaction and not knowing own rights and obligations.  

Uber excluded delivery workers from the new arrangement in the UK and thereby aggravated the inequalities in platform work. The delivery workers remain less protected in the UK and in many other countries. 

Occupational identities of taxi drivers and delivery workers in Finland.    

Across the globe the numerous court cases and growing public debates about the status of platform workers (also their rights and protections) may indicate the scale of disruption on labour markets. Some Nordic countries could serve as examples of how the national and local regulation can bring more clarity to platform worker’s status.  

The labour market and taxi industry are tightly regulated in Finland. Uber adjusted its business model to Finnish regulatory setting as it did in Norway and in many other countries. In Norway Uber operates in a higher segment of limousine car hire (Uber Black) and all drivers are classified as employees working on a limousine company’s cars (Oppegaard, 2021). In Finland Uber drivers usually register as entrepreneurs and typically work with own or leased car. A small fraction of drivers has contracts with Uber Fleet Partners and these partner companies are middlemen between workers and the platform. As licensed taxi drivers in Finland, Uber drivers can work with any platform or as traditional taxi drivers taking customers from taxi stops (although they often get a cold reception from taxi drivers who work only with traditional taxi operators). Their occupational identity is taxi entrepreneurs, the responsibilities are clear for them, and job opportunities are not limited by a ride-hailing platform. At the same time the professional associations of taxi drivers may not be eager to treat equally all taxi entrepreneurs.    

The great uncertainty  

Not all platform workers are in the same situation. Our research suggests that in contrast to taxi drivers, many delivery workers are uncertain about the character of relation with the platforms. A food delivery platform may have a freelancer contract with a courier, call him/her as a “partner” or “rider”, and yet control the worker if he/she was an employee.  Thus, the workers are either confident that the platform is “employer” or confused about own status. In 2020 on the request by the Finnish Occupational Safety and Health authority the Labour Council examined the working conditions of delivery workers and concluded that characteristics of the employment relationship were meat, and the food couriers were employed by the courier companies. Yet in spring 2021, two main food delivery platforms that operate in Finland haven’t made substantial changes in their courier employment practices.  Neither trade unions demonstrated any significant influence on how the platforms treat their workers.  

In March 2021 in the neighboring Sweden the food delivery platform Foodora (operates also in Finland) has signed a collective agreement with the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union Transportarbetareförbundet. The agreement improves the work conditions of 2000 couriers who use bicycles and scooters (and does not cover those who use cars). These workers will be entailed to fixed hourly pay and yearly salary increase, overwork and weekend bonuses, compensation for clothing, bicycle maintenance, and medicines (Helsingin Sanomat, 2021). It is important to mention that in Sweden the delivery workers of Foodora have employee status. Similar processes take place in other Nordic countries. For instance, the Danish trade union 3F and the employers’ organisation Dansk Erhverv have concluded a national sectoral agreement for Just Eat’s delivery riders (ETF, 2021). Earlier in 2019 the Norwegian Fellesforbundet and Foodora concluded a collective bargaining agreement recognizing the employment relationship between couriers and the food delivery platform (ITF, 2019).  

More public discussions are needed.  

The expansion of labour platforms to broader spheres of the labour market means that there is a growing significance of trade union representation for platform workers. Labour platforms tend to capitalize on gaps in legislation and uncertainties of occupational identities of workers. In Finland, platform workers are often uncertain if they are entrepreneurs, employees or someone in-between (workers). Trade unions may play an important role developing adequate regulation of platform work, protecting the rights of workers, and reduction of emerging inequalities caused by the variations in the status of workers of different platforms.  

The examples of ride-hailing and food delivery platforms often can demonstrate how digital platforms construct the uncertainty of occupational identities of their workers. Therefore, there is a need for continuing a broader public discussion on the status of platform workers, on their rights and protections. 


BBC (2021). Uber drivers are workers not self-employed, Supreme Court rules. February 19, 2021. 

BBC 4 (2021). Uber driver pay: What it means for the gig economy   

ETF (2021) 3F secures ground-breaking national sectoral agreement for delivery riders. ETF- European Transport Workers’ Federation  

ITF (2019). Union win! Historic agreement for food delivery workers.  

Helsingin Sanomat (2021). Foodora teki Ruotsissa historiallisen työehtosopimuksen, joka takaa lähetille vajaan 10 euron tuntipalkan – Wolt selvittää toisenlaisia, HS, 25.03.2021 malleja.  

Oppegaard, S. (2020). Regulating Flexibility: Uber’s Platform as a Technological Work Arrangement. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies11(1). 

Rosenblat, A. (2018). Uberland. University of California Press. 

Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform Capitalism. Polity.   

Uber (2021). Worker Employment Benefits.   

Will uberisation become a means to shrug off employer responsibilities?

A research project underway at Tampere University examines whether uberisation will continue to have a positive impact on the taxi industry in Russia and to what extent it will gain ground after Finland’s taxi industry reform.

Uber has been expected to revolutionise personal transport, but in reality the effects of uberisation have been strongly dependent on locality. The most common consequence of uberisation seems to be that companies are using legal loopholes to shirk their responsibilities as employers, which is most often seen in the USA.
Uber was established in the USA in 2009 to connect taxi drivers with potential customers through a taxi hailing app. The company has since gone global. Uber and Airbnb, an online marketplace for hospitality services, are examples of platform businesses: they provide a platform that brings together providers and consumers of a particular service.

Uberisation has so far demonstrably increased the use of taxi services and reduced the size of the shadow economy in Russia. In Finland, Uber rides could potentially fill the gaps left by the failed taxi industry reform carried out under the Sipilä administration.    

A research project exploring the effects of uberisation on the regulatory landscape in Finland, Russia and the UK has been launched at Tampere University. The researchers will look into Uber and other similar platform taxi services in relation to regulation and working conditions in Helsinki, London and Saint Petersburg.

Director of the project, Professor Meri Koivusalo suspects that platform businesses such as Uber may be basking in undeserved glory and may actually be just run-of-the-mill companies.  

”If there is nothing new and exciting about the platform economy, then it can be regulated as any other business and will not reshape our welfare state as much as we have been given to understand,” Koivusalo says. 

Taxi reform could ramp up demand for Uber

What could be fuelling the demand for Uber rides in Finland is the failed taxi industry reform that was carried out during the premiership of Juha Sipilä. The reform raised prices and resulted in a marked decline in the availability of taxi services in rural areas.   
”The reform could push customers to use Uber, because it is predictable and provides upfront pricing,” Meri Koivusalo says.
Responsible researcher in the project Mikko Perkiö says that Finland took a step backwards with the taxi industry reform. People are now expected to spend time looking for the best deal and negotiating fares when all they want is a safe and reliable ride to their destination.  

With Minister Anne Berner at the helm, Finnish policymakers believed that the liberalisation of the taxi market would benefit everyone. The reform promised to drive prices down and improve services. In fact, the opposite occurred.   
”Finland followed Sweden’s lead – and made the same mistakes. The reform leaves the door open for Uber but hopefully the trade-off will not be too costly in terms of labour standards,” Perkiö says.    

Meri Koivusalo/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall

Professor Meri Koivusalo is heading a project that explores the regulation of the platform economy and the effects of uberisation on labour standards. Photo: Jonne Renvall

Uber’s arrival reduced Russia’s shadow economy

In Russia, where it has long been customary that anyone with a car can offer a ride to anyone hailing a cab at a street corner, uberisation has increased the use of licensed taxis.

Mikko Perkiö quotes the results of a study carried out in Russia indicating that the number of taxi rides within Moscow increased dramatically in the 2010s, from 50,000 in 2010 to more than 700,000 in 2017. This growth is largely due to more rides being booked using mobile apps.

Another Russian study demonstrates that 90 per cent of Uber drivers operating in Russia’s major cities are satisfied with their driving experience, although 40 per cent of them are considering a job change. Two thirds of the drivers had been unemployed before joining Uber.   

”The arrival of Uber – which merged with the taxi service of the Russian IT behemoth Yandex in 2018 – and other ride-sharing companies that utilise real-time vehicle location tracking has not only improved passenger safety but also increased predictability. Now we know our cab driver, route and fare upfront. Uber seems to have been an optimal solution for cities where unlicensed taxi services have previously been rampant,” Perkiö says.

Independent contractors versus full-time employees

In the USA where employers shoulder the lion’s share of healthcare and social security costs, uberised business models have emerged as a way to shrug off employer responsibilities. The effects are less strongly felt in many European countries where these costs do not take such a heavy toll on employers.

Still, the loudest Uber critics are found in Europe. The researchers reckon that this may partly be due to trade unions being stronger in Europe than in the USA.

According to a study conducted at the University of Jyväskylä three years ago, uberisation has reduced taxi fares, increased the demand for rides and boosted economic growth around the world. The study at Tampere University focuses on regulation and the working conditions of drivers.    

”We are keeping an open mind to both the negative and positive effects of uberisation,” sums up Meri Koivusalo.

Uber is basically an application, a technology platform that could also be used to achieve and maintain regulatory compliance. Koivusalo points out that this is a perfectly feasible option.

”We need to ask whether national authorities have enough regulatory leeway in this area or whether it will be necessary for countries to adhere to international regulations. Or will international companies be expected to adjust their activities to comply with national law?” 

Mikko Perkiö/ Kuva: Heikki Laurinolli
Researcher Mikko Perkiö says that the effects of uberisation are largely dependent on locale. Photo: Heikki Laurinolli

Bigger employment issue than Uber

Uber is a part of the platform and sharing economy that extends far and wide from rental market to delivery services.
“The same principles are seen in the social and healthcare sector. There are visions to apply a similar platform approach to the development of hospitals and even universities,” Meri Koivusalo says.

She doubts whether the platform economy will in reality pose such an inescapable threat to the foundations of our welfare state as is often claimed.

“There is no reason why platform economy could not be regulated as any commercial activity. It comes down to policy-makers to decide whether they are willing to at least try.”  

Mikko Perkiö compares Uber drivers to freelancers and self-employed people who usually do not have a similar safety net to fall back on as salaried employees. Self-employed workers make up about 15 per cent of all workforce in the EU. In the UK, the gig economy employs one third of workers under the age of 30. The platform economy is a catch-all term that encompasses a variety of jobs ranging from Uber drivers to food delivery couriers who may be struggling to make ends meet.   

The platform economy is a broad and complex phenomenon and not all the related problems are associated with social security and poor working conditions. Perkiö points out that most Airbnb hosts are middle-class homeowners or hospitality entrepreneurs. The home-sharing company has been widely accused in Europe for hurting the hotel industry and driving up rental prices but has not been blamed for eroding labour standards.

It is possible to regulate the platform economy

Even before the current research project was launched, Meri Koivusalo has kept a close eye on the amount of regulatory leeway that the EU provides to individual cities in Europe. This leeway will have a major effect on the regulation of the platform economy.

”The most important question may be whether regulatory controls can be imposed at the national or European level. It is likely that most of the political wrangling will have to take place between multinational companies and the EU, which may be challenging for the EU.”

According to Koivusalo, the emergence of the platform economy poses new regulatory challenges but also opens up new possibilities.    

“In the future, platform businesses may be regulated differently and from different perspectives than regular companies. These companies may try to give the impression that they cannot be obligated to do anything because they are not employers. This may be a conscious political choice.”

The project headed by Koivusalo received funding from the Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Culture and Society last spring. The project is set to continue until the end of 2021. Researcher Arseniy Svynarenko will carry out research in Saint Petersburg.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli


Uber – Social inclusion or new risks for immigrant drivers? by Magdaleena Lehmuskoski

As global migration accelerates, the integration of immigrants challenges societies. Could platform models, such as Uber, provide social inclusion or do they merely entail new risks?

Uber is a controversial global ride-sharing company providing a platform to connect drivers and passengers. It employs over one million drivers, many of them immigrants. Requiring virtually only a driving license and a vehicle, Uber provides immigrants low-threshold employment while other jobs are hard to find.

Uber promises its drivers flexible, supplementary work. However, many immigrant drivers depend on Uber as full-time employment. Wishing to find a job, they are often compliant with low salaries and limited rights. On average, Uber drivers earn the minimum wage or less. Compulsory expenses, such as commissions, insurances and vehicle costs further increase the risk of economic hardship and indebtedness.

Uber classifies its drivers as self-employed, which shrewdly shifts responsibilities and risks to the drivers. Weak social protection increases the drivers’ vulnerability. In case of social risks, such as accidents, sickness or unemployment, they are liable to cover for themselves. Furthermore, weak regulation creates job insecurity. Uber drivers might get fined or sacked if they reject too many trips or receive poor feedback. A big labour reserve means that they are easily replaceable.

Taxi drivers are exposed to discrimination based on race, ethnicity and language. Though the Uber feedback system is intended to protect drivers and passengers, it has also been accused of unreliability and discrimination. Immigrant drivers have been given poorer ratings based on ethnicity. Rides have also been cancelled once the driver’s racial background has been discovered. Lower scores reduce booking rates and increase the risk of dismissal. This severely compromises the livelihoods of immigrant drivers.

Undoubtedly, Uber offers immigrants prominent employment and integration opportunities. However, their livelihoods being heavily dependent on Uber imposes immigrant workers to a cycle of socioeconomic vulnerability. As labour demand remains insufficient, economic circumstances pressure them to silently endure. Hence, governmental policies should more decisively promote fair organization of work and social protection coverage of all workers regardless of ethnicity.

Original publication