In the pandemic, in addition to teachers and health workers, parcel carriers, delivery service and Uber drivers were recognized as being systemically relevant. The so-called “front-line workers” run the highest risk of infection and, unlike in many other professions, cannot fall back on home office. Although the appreciation of these jobs has increased during the pandemic, this has so far only led to better working conditions in very few cases. In addition, the majority of systemically important jobs are in the low-wage sector, as a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation reported.
During the Christmas season, the four largest parcel delivery companies and Amazon employed over 43,000 additional parcel deliverers. The dimension of precarious employment models is more visible than ever. As consumers, we often have a guilty conscience when we have all ordered Christmas gifts with a click of the mouse or have boxes full of mineral water dragged to our home.
We are in daily contact with precarious workers
The precarious working conditions of crowd or platform workers are difficult to ignore. A few years ago we found out about exploitation in the meat industry mostly only through journalistic research or local trade unionists. Today we have direct contact with the parcel delivery company, we suspect that he works for a subcontractor of a large online retailer and has two minutes to deliver all the parcels for a house number. Or to food suppliers who have nowhere to go to the toilet during their working hours in the corona lockdown.
The sociologist Heiner Heiland at the Technical University of Darmstadt conducted research in the field of food delivery services. In order to get an idea of the working conditions for himself, he hired a bicycle courier for a while. Heiland researched the everyday life of bicycle couriers and wanted to know what it is like when the app gives instructions to a platform. Heiland sees three major problem areas that make life difficult not only for bicycle couriers, but also for many crowd workers. First, these workers are poorly paid. The findings from the Federal Statistical Office show that employees in the parcel industry earn an average of 1,000 euros less per month than the average salary of all other employees in Germany. In addition, many parcel delivery companies or bicycle couriers do not have permanent full-time contracts.
Second, for many there are “unclear, unusual and long working hours,” says Heiland. For drivers of the food delivery services, the rule is that you have a lot to do at lunchtime and in the evening at peak times and you have to be ready to work on Sundays too. Parcel carriers often have 12 or 16 hour working days. Thirdly, there are also the health risks to which these employees are exposed: If you are constantly on the road as a cyclist in winter, there are many dangers – even if a pandemic is not raging. We at NewsABC.net have also reported on the increasing number of infections in the shipping centers of Amazon and Zalando.
“All in all, this means that we are observing an erosion of established employment relationships,” says the sociologist Heiland. Open-ended, regulated employment contracts are no longer a matter of course. Low-skilled workers, the long-term unemployed and foreign workers are particularly exposed to this tendency.
Are the online platforms to blame for the bad job conditions?
The exploitation of the labor did not start with Amazon. But there are different views on how digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) have shaped these relationships.
Scientist and journalist Magdalena Taube, together with a group of international artists and social scientists, examined the effects of AI on the world of work as part of the “Silent Works” project. In doing so, she came to the conclusion that the AI-driven economy not only leads to exploitative working conditions, but also to the fact that employees in the AI-driven industries have become invisible in the pandemic.
The idea behind an app from a food delivery service is that consumers can have their food delivered to their door with a click of the mouse and without any effort. “In reality, there is a lot of work behind the click of a mouse,” says Taube. “We thought that machine learning of the algorithms would make our lives easier and reduce human labor,” says the scientist. From their point of view, however, the opposite has occurred: digitization and AI have not been able to fulfill the promise of less exploitation.
Dr. Christian Rammer also conducts research on AI in business and at the beginning of December conducted a study on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economics on the use of AI in German companies. Rammer also looked at the impact of AI on employment. “A lot of manual work based on AI instructions occurs, especially in retail and logistics,” says the scientist from the Leibniz Center for European Economic Research. But this tendency is not dominant for the economy as a whole in Germany, says Rammer. His study concludes that the application and development of AI creates higher quality jobs. In the period from 2016 to 2018, the use of AI in German companies created 48,000 jobs. It is not only jobs that are directly related to the development of AI, but also jobs that were created in this way for new products and services.
AI creates jobs – but the companies are not yet profitable
Rammer does not share the view that AI requires more, rather than less, human labor. But the trade that we encounter every day seems to be an exception. Regarding the precarious working conditions, Rammer says that these would also exist without the use of AI.
The sociologist Heiner Heiland provides another explanation for the increasing number of employees in precarious employment. He sees the reason that many of the platforms or AI-driven business models are not yet profitable. “The high investments in startups mean that companies such as Uber are overvalued,” says Heiland. But the business model of delivery services – at least until they do not have a monopoly – is in many cases not economical and “is on shaky feet,” says Heiland. Even large delivery companies like Delivery Hero, which recently went public, are not yet profitable.
As a result, the jobs they offer are underpaid and the turnover on such platforms is enormous. “On average, an employee stays on such a platform for two months,” says Heiland. For this reason, the platforms are always desperately looking for new staff. They often employ workers who have already been extradited financially or because of their residence status in Germany. “Der Spiegel” reported in 2019 how subcontractors who worked for Amazon are said to have cheated refugees out of their wages. Research by BuzzfeedNews Germany reported on criminal structures illegally employed by workers from Ukraine at the German logistics company Fiege.
Others, who enjoy a monopoly position, evade state regulations by merely presenting themselves as intermediary platforms. For example, the company Uber does not hire a single driver in Germany and only wants to be perceived as an intermediary platform between drivers and customers.
Is there any hope that things will get better?
Hope gives a ruling that the lawyer Andreja Schneider-Dörr, from the law firm Berger Rechtsanwälte from Reutlingen and a Munich law firm, won before the Federal Labor Court in November 2020. The question was whether a crowd worker with clear tasks and regular working hours is considered an employee of a platform. The plaintiff was about a person from Munich who regularly carried out so-called micro-job offers on an online platform.
His job was to control the presentation of certain goods in stores, to take photos of the goods and to answer questions about advertising. He always had a two-hour window for this job. The Munich-based company carried out 2,978 such orders within eleven months. In 2018, the platform wanted to terminate the collaboration all at once: From the company’s point of view, the crowd worker was self-employed and could therefore be terminated at any time. Attorney Schneider-Dörr, on the other hand, considered it quite possible that there would be an employment relationship in such a case. “The people there have very strict guidelines on how they have to cope with the tasks,” she argued before the Federal Labor Court. The court ruled in favor of the crowd worker, granting him the rights that an employee with a permanent employment contract is entitled to.
What has to happen so that we no longer order online with a guilty conscience?
The judgment of the Federal Labor Court does not automatically apply to all crowd workers, but it shows the need for clarity when it comes to such, sometimes fluid and non-transparent work structures. “Even if not all platforms are evil, we need clear rules of the game for the digital working world,” says lawyer Schneider-Dörr. She also calls for collective agreements for dependent self-employed so that the employees can act collectively. For this reason, the Verdi union called on employees in seven Amazon shipping centers to go on strike in the middle of the biggest Christmas business: the union has been unsuccessful in negotiations on collective agreements for over seven years.
Schneider-Dörr and the sociologist Heiland agree that there are already suitable regulatory approaches in Germany to prevent the exploitative employment models. In November 2020, the Federal Ministry of Labor published key points on “fair platform work”. E.g. stated that the platform companies must be more involved in the social security of the solo self-employed. Or that in the future it will be the companies and not the employees who will have to prove an employment relationship. The challenge now is to get the different business models to meet these criteria.