All posts ELMO Series: Gig Work in CEE’s Platform Economy

Platform work in East-Central Europe: reporting and organising in an emerging field

Note from LeftEast editors: This is the report on the online roundtable that ELMO – Eastern European Left Media Outlet organized on June 28, 2021. Researchers, journalists, activists and artists were invited to discuss reporting and researching platform-based gig work in the CEE region, as well as organizing in this emerging field. It was the closing event to the “Gig work in CEE’s platform economy” article series that ELMO members have carried out in May in honour of the international labour day, May 1st, and May as a month dedicated to workers’ struggles.

Degradation of employment relations is decades old in the CEE peripheries of the EU. It was common well before platform companies, such as Uber, Wolt, or Glovo, appeared on the scene. However, platform-based gig work remained mostly invisible to the wider public until the pandemic hit.

Covid-19 deepened an already pervasive economic crisis, as both unemployment and social inequalities increased and it suddenly highlighted the significance of food couriers and other gig workers for the economy and society alike.

East Left Media Outlet – ELMO invited researchers, journalists, activists and artists engaged with this topic to map out key questions and methods of researching on and engaging with platform-based gig work in the CEE region.

The discussion was held online on 28th June 2021 as a closing event to the “Gig work in CEE’s platform economy” article series that ELMO members have carried out in May in honour of the international labour day, May 1st, and May as a month dedicated to workers’ struggles. The full discussion is available here.

Recording of the ELMO online roundtable about platform-based gig work in Central Eastern Europe

Platform-based gig work in the CEE region was discussed by ELMO’s guests Branka Anđelković (Public Policy Research Center, Serbia), Tibor T. Meszmann (Central European Labor Studies Institute), David Schwarz (Political Theatre Platform, Romania), Marko Miletić (, Serbia) and Jurgis Valiukevičius (May 1st labor union, Lithuania) and was moderated by Mariya Ivancheva (LeftEast, ELMO).

Is there anything specific to Platform-based gig work in CEE?

There is a rising interest in the topic of platform and gig economy since the Covid-19 pandemic made a whole world of work more visible. This world of work was made invisible on purpose, because there has been a lot of dumping down, casualisation of contracts that the platform and gig economy has often offered, pointed out Mariya Ivancheva during her introduction to the discussion.

Ivancheva, who is a sociologist and anthropologist and a member of the collectives LeftEast, ЛевФем / LevFem and EAST – Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational, said that during the preparatory work for the panel discussion the question that emerged was whether “there is anything more specific happening in East-Central Europe regarding gig work, given that precarity has not been anything new to the region and that trade union organizing has not been well established”.

The invited researchers, journalists, activists and artists engaged with the platform and gig economy will participate in a conversation that will map out key questions and methods of dealing with the platform-based gig work in the CEE region. They will share their methodologies of research, art and militancy that might help to explain the discrepancy between the platform companies’ promises and the realities of the employment they provide, explained Ivancheva.

Tibor T. Meszmann, a researcher at the Central European Labor Studies Institute,  and member of Hungary-based Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet” offered five perspectives from which platform mediated gig work needs to be analysed. 

The first perspective is historical and it relates to the development of informality in East and Central  Europe after 1989, said Meszmann. The second perspective is that of entrepreneurship. The third perspective should focus on various new forms of labour relationships that are appearing, while the fourth should deal with technology’s impact on society. Finally, the fifth perspective has to be aimed at the social groups which participate in gig work.

Branka Anđelković, a Co-founder and Programme Director of Serbia-based Public Policy Research Center think tank, presented Gig Meter, an instrument her organization created.

“Gig Meter, the instrument we created a year ago, gives you insight into gender, occupation and pay regarding gig activities in Southeast Europe on one platform which we believe to be representative of all gig work in the region,” said Anđelković.

In October 2020 after the strike of “Bolt food” workers in Lithuania the “Couriers’ association” has been established as a branch of the union for food delivery couriers. Jurgis Valiukevičius, a chairperson of Lithuania-based May 1st labor union (G1PS) is part of the organisation team of Couriers’ association.

The labour union entered into the sphere of gig work with the idea to start demanding the recognition of couriers as workers, but reactions surprised them, told Valiukevičius.

“The couriers themselves reacted negatively to the initiative to represent them as workers. The company told the couriers that the union is trying to take away the flexibility. We made the error of not recognising that people value this flexibility even though their hours add up to regular work”, explained Valiukevičius.

The union had to change its approach. It had to find ways to relate to the entrepreneurial appeal of gig work, hence they’ve  “started to speak more about the equality between business partners, to ask couriers if they feel equal in their relationship with the company.”

In Romania, food delivery workers were a theme of the theatre play București Livrator, which was directed by David Schwartz. He is a cultural worker involved in numerous politically-engaged performing arts projects in Romania and the founder of the Political Theatre Platform (Stagiunea de Teatru Politic).

“During the pandemic, because of the lack of jobs in Romania – especially in services like hotels, bars and restaurants – many workers turned to gig work” told David Schwartz who has been conducting interviews and leading informal discussions with gig workers in Bucharest.

Many people work in the Bucharest gig economy. From students to the elderly, members of very different social groups try to fill the holes in their household budget or make a living from jobs such as food delivery. While the companies such as Uber and Glovo operate via small local companies that act as intermediaries and recruit couriers, around half of the couriers Schwartz spoke to were hired with fake contracts and not registered with the tax authorities.

“Most of the couriers with the fake contracts didn’t care about this. I would keep asking what about pension, health insurance, and people would answer that they prefer to earn more money even if they are not insured. They would also ask me ‘how do we know that we’ll have pensions in 20 years’.”

Most of Schwartz’s interlocutors confirmed that they would participate in some form of solidarity action for gig workers, but they also say that it is difficult to see how it would be possible to negotiate with the companies, since the couriers are operating in a grey zone on fake contracts, and if they perform any act against company interest, the company just bans them from using the platform to get work.

Marko Miletić is co-editor of Serbian internet newspaper Mašina, which regularly publishes news and analysis regarding labour-related issues including gig work.

“We started writing about gig workers two years ago, after a photo of an injured courier appeared on social networks. We wrote about this incident from the perspective of endangered labour rights and since then we were approached by gig workers several times when they were trying to solve problems with the platform companies”, said Marko Miletić.

Serbian gig workers have the most complaints about Glovo, the company which is expanding its operations in the region, by taking over the smaller local competition. In Miletić’s view, the delivery platform market in Serbia will be reduced to the duopoly of Wolt and Glovo.

Media mostly reports on platform companies’ expansions and profit growth and the possibility of high sums couriers can earn, but not on the labour issues in the delivery business, which are, in fact, covered by the research, pointed out Miletić. Gig workers confirmed that it is possible to earn a high sum, but only if one works at least 12 hours every day during the month and has a motorcycle.

Different problems hunt the possibility of organizing among delivery gig workers. An example Miletić cited is the division among Belgrade couriers who ride bicycles and those who deliver by car. Belgrade lacks biking infrastructure, hence the bike riders are primarily concerned with traffic safety, while those who use cars face the lack of parking space, and the two groups are in a conflict over the importance of these issues.

Trade unions that could help gig workers lack adequate models to organize in the platform and gig economy. Never the less Glovo couriers in Belgrade did manage to organize on two occasions.

“Glovo couriers organized on two occasions in order to fight for better work conditions. Their actions were primarily defensive and came at times when the company made changes to the use of their application”, explained Miletić.

András Juhász is a political activist from Zrenjanin, Serbia. He is a member of the editorial board of the portal.