Q&A  | 

Ethical platform economy alternatives, by Ricard Espelt and Melissa Renau

"Models such as Coopcycle, Cotabo or Equal Care Co-op try to offer a more ethical alternative in the platform economy"

Tags: 'Economía de plataformas'


Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ricard Espelt and Melissa Renau are part of the Dimmons research team on platform economics led by Mayo Fuster at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia.

Dimmons is an action-research group that closely links research with the needs of society, from training related topics to the co-creation of public policies.

"Consumers have the power to make the platform economy develop in a more ethical way", they say.

What are the main characteristics of platform workers?

In broad terms, workers in the platform economy often find themselves in vulnerable situations and having few job alternatives. This leads them to accept generally poorly paid jobs that are also unstable and lacking social protection.

However, to answer this question we should consider a previous premise: not all digital platforms are the same. At Dimmons we have worked on the characterization of the platform economy, considering aspects related to governance, the economic model, data and technology policies, and social responsibility and impact.

Based on this, we have identified different types of platforms: from extractivist platforms that have a great impact on the working conditions of the people who work through them, to new forms of platform cooperativism that foster intercooperation and can amplify the positive impact of the social and solidarity economy.

In conclusion, despite the fact that the attention of media, politics and even research has focused on the generally negative impacts of the platform economy, there are also very positive examples.


Does the platform economy offer flexibility or precariousness?

In the platform economy, “flexibility” is a widely used concept that refers both to the flexibility of working time – offering a greater work-life balance for workers- and to the flexibility for companies as employers through contractual forms that offer the possibility of having workers on demand at the lowest possible cost.

In other words, the interests of the company and the workers are different. The company moves to increase economic efficiency, while the worker tries to improve their working conditions.

If workers have no power for negotiation, the company has a greater margin to make benefits out of that “flexibility”. The result? Workers who “freely decide” to work more than 10 hours a day, with high levels of pressure due to the uncertain and sometimes low pay they receive.

To achieve a flexibility that benefits the platform worker more, the working class needs to be more powerful.

Some platform entrepreneurs like Will Shu, founder of Deliveroo, claim that they are actually responding to what people demand. What would you say to that?

One of the main strategies used by companies such as Deliveroo is to convince workers that they are “entrepreneurs”, that they enjoy “total flexibility” and “that they don’t have a boss”.

By saying that its workers are “collaborators”, Deliveroo tries to deliver this image of promoting a certain kind of freedom, making workers believe that they are solely responsible for their working conditions.

“If you don’t make more money  it is not because our rates are low or because there are too many delivery people in relation to the demand, but because you are not good or fast enough and you should do more ”.


According to the European Commission report Digital Platforms in Europe (2019), Spain is the country in the Union with the most digital platform workers, and up to 12.5% of the adult population has done this type of work at least once. Why is this so?

The gig-economy economy flourished after the 2008 crisis and the subsequent labor reforms by neoliberals based on increasing the flexibility of the labor market while facilitating the degradation of labor rights.

In this sense, Spain, a country with high levels of structural unemployment, was a breeding ground for the proliferation of this kind of models, which is why we now top the ranking.

Hopefully the crisis induced by COVID-19 will be managed in a different way.

In which sectors do platforms generate more work?

Actually, the platform economy has a very global character. The platform economy goes way beyond Amazon, Netflix, Uber or Airbnb.

The early platforms, with a commons orientation, were linked to open software and knowledge. Today, as we have pointed out, there is a more diverse typology of platforms that cover almost all areas of life: mobility, product distribution, culture, etc. At Dimmons we have identified around thirty areas of economic activity.

As far as the nature of work is concerned, it is also important to distinguish platforms that enable face-to-face jobs (for example, the distribution of products) from those which enable virtual formats (for example, content moderation, translation or editing).


What responsibility do consumers bear in the working conditions of platform workers?

It’s undeniable that for consumers the platform economy is a comfortable spot. Amazon or food delivery apps provide fast and cheap services. However, we sometimes turn a blind eye when it comes to aknowledging that this behavior creates a vicious circle.

Why do we consume on certain digital platforms? For example, going back to the Deliveroo case, before the pandemic, the bottomline of their advertising campaigns was “not having time to cook”, “being too tired to go out to pick up food” or “not having a plan for the evening”.

Concepts such as “food freedom” aim to attract a consumer who has enough income to afford a meal in a restaurant from time to time but does not always have the time or does not always feel like going there physically.

This reflects the fact that consumers also suffer from the growing precariousness of the labor market, and with our actions we are actually perpetuating it.

Therefore, as consumers we can choose options that try to offer an ethical alternative to these platforms, which ensure the labor rights of workers and try thus to break the circle. Some examples are Coopcycle, Cotabo or Equal Care Co-op.


Do you think it is taking too long to regulate in this field?

From our point of view, it is not only important how long it takes to legislate or the fact that it is done, but that the result of these decisions directs us towards a future of work where labor rights are protected, a future in which flexibility does not diminish salaried work and social protection.

California pioneered the introduction of regulation such as AB5, but all those efforts have been undermined by the approval of Proposition 22 which, contrary to what the platforms claim, contributes to the degradation of working conditions.

We need to ensure that the same will not happen in Europe and for this we need to make informed decisions that take into account the voice of those people who are directly affected along with a critical analisis that contribute to co-creating these measures.