The Missing Link? – Gig/Crowd Workers And German Unions

Stefan Dietl and Kathrin Birner


How can German trade unions keep up with the „uberization“ of the economy – an expression that has been coined as a term for the phenomenon of transforming traditional businesses by the use of technology, referring to the US-based ridesharing app „Uber“1? As online platforms for the transaction of services and goods are spreading, it becomes more and more essential for labor to find mechanisms in order to establish workers´ rights in this field. Yet, while there exists a broad consensus on the need for unionist answers in the digital era, there are still but few examples worldwide in which the situaton of gig or crowd workers could be significantly improved (Vandaele 2018). This paper will address the issue with regards to the German context and seek to explore why the link between precarious gig and crowd workers and German unions is mostly missing. It will be divided in three parts:

The first part will give a short introduction to the forms of gig and crowd work that are most relevant in Germany, and how to situate these jobs in the labor market, both regarding their dimension and deficits in workers´ rights.
Secondly, there will be an outline of unionists attempts to organize workers in this field, with examples from various sectors. This part does not intend to provide a complete analysis of all existing projects but aims at highlighting the evolution of the internal debate as well as the impact of some „lighthouse examples“, both for the workers and for the unions. It will be argued that self-organized protest has led to putting the issue on the agenda in the food delivery economy but that fruitful paths in other areas are under-communicated.
The third part summarizes the chances and shortcomings of the current unionist strategies and argues for a broader communication about existing ideas and services. Further recommendations about how to tackle other gig workers will be briefly explored.

The article is based on research conducted for a larger analysis on several forms of precarious work (Dietl 2018) and also takes into account current debates, projects, and analyses by the DGB, its member organizations or unionist research institutes.

Gig and crowd work on the rise

Crowdsourcing describes the outsourcing of processes or tasks to more than one person in order to achieve an enhanced result through the cumulative character of the divided work steps (Howe 2006). The prevalent form today takes place virtually and is location-independent, so that the term „cloudworking“ is also used (Greef/Schroeder 2017). This sets it appart from related forms of virtually offered jobs that need to be performed offline, e.g. delivery services, which is basically a form of „work on demand via apps“ (De Stefano 2016) and will be referred to as gig work for a better distinction.

Few data is available on the actual dimension of crowdwork and gig work. An ILO study on crowdwork and gig work cites calculations assuming about 220,000 transportation gig workers internationally, almost 7 million care workers, and over 14 million working as clickworkers worldwide (De Stefano 2016). Experts estimate there are between 200,000 and 1 million click workers in Germany, between 1 and 12 per cent of the European working population (Pesole et. al. 2018; Bonin and Rinne 2017; Huws et al. 2017). A governmentally financed study on the platform economy estimates that up to 5 per cent of eligible voters perform crowd and gig work (Serfling 2018) and the Federal Ministery of Labor and Social Affairs assumes that a third out of these 5 per cent work only offline (gig work), a fifth only online (crowdwork), and the rest perform online and offline tasks2. With 61,9 million eligible voters as of 2017, 5 per cent results in 3,09 million crowd and gig workers, with at least one million working in gig work and at least 618,000 as pure crowdworkers.
These vague numbers explain also the deficit in research on the working conditions, even though abundant information is available on the processes and risks involved, both theoretically and drawn from a few sectors that have received public attention.

Let us first focus on the information on crowdworking.

Like for gig work, the intermediary platform is central to crowdwork because this is where firms can offer their tasks or project to an unknown „crowd“ as a call for bids. The crowd can consist of indiviudals, formal or informal groups, or even companies, and the task is eventually performed by one or more applicants (Leitmeister 2015). While there are also non-profit crowdsourcing platforms such as wikipedia, the focus here lies on crowdworkers who are not looking for volunteer work but monetary compensation (Leitmeister et al. 2016). Because of the monotony of some simple data entry tasks, they are also called clickworkers. Amazon´s Mechanical Turk was one of the first platforms for paid online crowdwork in 2005, and the number of platforms as well as crowdworkers has been rising ever since. The interaction between the contracting firm and the contracted worker is merely virtual, and no permanent employment is established. A company offers a task or project on an intermediary platform, e.g. the content creation for a website, app testing, indexing, or the design of technical specifications for small parts of a larger project.
Digital workers worldwide who are registered with the platform can now compete for the bid. If their application is accepted they willl perform the task, deliver the results to the company online and get paid.

This seemingly simple process implies several problems for the clickworkers. First, they are required to constantly observe the marketplace and jump into the bidding process on time. Not paying attention can mean losing a job. Most crowdworkers are therefore registered with several platforms, some of them with up to 25. Secondly, the global nature of the marketplace increases the competition. Thirdly, the clickworkers are often rated based upon their prior performances, and new or more complicated tasks can only be acquired through a good rating history. This requires accepting also less-paid jobs in order to climb up the rating ladder and limits the possibilities for the worker to file complaints about a company. Fourthly, there are bids which require the applicants to turn in complete drafts from which a winner is chosen, a process commonly used in the IT design sector. „The winner takes it all“ also means that there is no pay guarantee for the rest even after a fully completed task. And while only the winner receives compensation for the work, the terms of conditions often imply that the copyrights for all drafts are transferred to the platform, with unknown destiny.

We know from international studies that clickworkers both in the US and EU earn 70,6 per cent less than comparable „offline“ workers, while they dedicate the same or even more time online looking for the next task (Cantarella/ Strozzi 2018).

A survey conducted by the University of Kassel and the trade unionist Hans-Böckler-Stiftung in 2016 among clickworkers showed that more than 70 per cent of the respondents earned less than € 500 monthly income before taxes but after deducting the platform charges (Leitmeister et al. 2016). While these earnings qualify as a side job income for most respondents, the average income of those working full time as clickworkers (20 per cent of the respondents) did not exceed €1,500 either. This is not even half of the average monthly gross income which was €3,771 as of 2017. 3The average net income of all employees in Germany was €1,888 as of 20174.
Please note therefore that the €1,500 average income of a fulltime crowdworker is before taxes and social security contributions. It is important to emphasize that almost the entire crowd workforce is formally self-employed. This means that they have to provide for their own health care insurance, unemployment insurance, or retirement schemes, while these social security contributions are shared with the employers in formal employment relationships. Gunter Haake from the ver.di department for self-employed workers has noted that the necessary gross income of self-employed would have to be 50 to 100 per cent higher than that of a wage worker to reach an equal income. The respondents therefore earn a lot less than the average income, both before and after taxes and social security contributions.

In addition, the status as self-employed worker also results in a legally more vulnerable position. Labor laws do not apply – there are no working hour restrictions, no paid leave or sick leave, nor respresentation rights in the codetermination system at the contracting firms. Classic collective agreements do not apply and cannot be pursued according to the German Labor Law Act, even though this Act includes a clause on „employment-like conditions“, whose practical impact on freelance journalists will be addressed later.

In many cases, there are also indications for disguised employment which affects not only the individual worker and the different working rights but also the social security system and the tax collection. Dietl (2018) points out that most platforms specify the exact working process for a job, sporadically or permanently control the performance by monitoring, for instance, the keystrokes, reward good working results through „promotions“ wihin the platform hierarchy and access to better jobs, or punish bad performances or repeated decline of job offers with lower ratings. All of these features are characteristic for traditional wage work, while self-employment is typically characterized by a high degree of independence. With self-employment on the rise, the German Statutory Pension Insurance Scheme opened a clearing center where the employment status can be assessed. This can be necessary in order to avoid social security fraud investigations, or when either the employer or the employee file a request. However, most workers refrain from doing so because they fear losing their contracts. Nevertheless, the clearing center rulings as well as the specification from income tax laws have resulted in a very specific legal definition of wage work and self-employment. This can theoretically help demasking disguised employement.

Self-employment also plays an important role in gig work, as has been mentioned above. While crowdwork takes place virtually, gig or platform work refers to jobs that are offered through intermediary platforms but need to be performed in the real world. Food delivery, domestic cleaning and health care services are prominent examples for this offline platform work. The term gig work is an analogy to the way in which musicians nomadically live from gig to gig.5

Unlike crowdsourcing which only affects the way the work process is performed, platform work drastically changes whole industries. As noted before, many call this development „uberization“, as on-demand work apps have been emerging for all kind of services. It is no news that technological innovation can have disruptive effects. The concept of „creative disruption“ is often attributed to the Austrian economist Joseph Alois Schumpeter who described it as a „process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one“ (Schumpeter 1994 [1942].). He models the entrepreneur as the driving force for innovation and progress in society, and explains crises with endogenous factors to the business cycle. Aside from this entrepreneurial view that has inspired marketing and innovation management until today, Karl Marx observed the destructive innovation of capitalism in a larger conetext. His work on the primitive accumulation of capital shows how previous socio-economic structures and the prevalent production order are violently replaced by capitalism (Marx, Engels 1983). But he also points out the incessant drive for ceaseless new methods of production, the devaluation of existing capital, the fierce competition, and the need to expand the market as inherent laws of the capitalist production; with impending ruin for those who dare not to comply. (Marx 1964).

There is no doubt that disruptive elements can be observed in platform based technologies. The new tehchnolgies revolutionized value creation patterns in such different sectors as transportation (Uber), hospitality (Airbnb) or retail (eBay). For instance, the rise of Airbnb has not only affected businsses in the hospitality sector but also exacerbated the housing shortage in some cities (Lee 2016).

As paid platform work lies at the focus of this article, consumer-to-consumer platforms such as Airbnb are not of concern for this work. The notorious platform Uber is only allowed to operate on a very restricted basis in Germany, even though politicians are thinking about liberalizing the respective transportation laws6 . The most important sectors for gig work in Germany are delivery services and personal service work (Serfling 2018). As mentioned above, the German government estimates that at least one million people are involved with this offline work via apps.

The biggest food delivery services in Germany are offered through Lieferando, Lieferheld,, Foodora, and Deliveroo. The Dutch company Takeaway which runs Lieferando, recently announced the take-over of the three platforms held by the Berlin start-up Delivery Hero (Lieferheld,, Foodora) for almost one billion Euro7. This will leave only Takeaway and its British counterpart Deliveroo as major players in the future, even though it remains unclear which platforms will eventually be shut down.

Restaurants can register with the delivery platforms and therefore expand their businesses by offering delivery services. The platform charges 30 per cent per delivery. The couriers mostly use bikes to pick up the food at the restaurant and deliver it to the costumer. They are often formally self-employed even though some companies also contract part-time employees. The same risks for self-employment as described above apply therefore, such as in terms of social security, unplannable income variation, and lack of labor rights. The specific nature of the transportation workplace creates additional dangers and increases the social vulnerability. For instance, food delivery by bike carry a higher risk to be hit and hurt in traffic, while they often lack the money to provide for sufficient protection. They have to buy and maintain their bikes for the largest part, buy adequate clothes, and use their private smart phones and data packages for a steadily running app. However, a 2018 survey among delivery riders at Foodora and Deliveroo also showed a surprisingly high degree of autonomy: „Riders have flexibility over time – scheduling, can decide in which zones they want to work, and are free to determine the route and speed of delivery.“(Ivanvova et al 2018). This was the case regardless of the contractual status (self-employed or employed). Interestingly, the degree of autonomy shifted in some cases based on the performance, and was even deliberately used alongside with monetary incentives as a „an additional carrot for high performers“ (ibid).

Unlike in the food delivery sector, household services require a much higher degree of confidence and reliability, as the mechanic, cleaner or health care worker accesses the home and privacy of the client. This could explain the higher share of part time employees as compared to crowdworking or less personal gig work.
The most important cleaning services platforms for Germany are Book a Tiger and Helpling. In order to meet the high quality expectations, both platforms give very specific instructions on how to provide the cleaning services. These instructions were embedded in the software user contract which slowly revealed more and more features of a work contract. It specified work steps and allotted time, it gave instructions on appearance including specific work clothes. This facilitated documenting disguised employment, and increased the risk of legal charges. To limit this risk and in order to improve the services through more directional powers, Book a Tiger changed its business model in 2016, and startet to employ part time workers8. Helpling, on the other side, continues with hiring contracted self-employed workers, with the manager emphasizing that Helpling is a software company and not a cleaning service or employer9 Helpling intodruced a performance score that rates quality, communication, and reliabilty10.

How virtual workplaces can lead to real struggles

The challenge of organizing crowd and gig workers lies in overcoming their isolation even though the technological means theoretically exist already through the very devices needed for the work itself. As Ivanova et al. (2018) noted with reference to Glöss et al (2016) „designing a labor platform app means also designing labor relations“. Collective action is further complicated by the status of large parts of the workforce as self-employed workers, the lack of the firm as a fixed spatial location, the intransparency of how tasks are acquired and the high hurdles for developping a common strategy.

Some worldwide examples have proven that successful self-organization is, however, feasible. The California App-based drivers Association (CADA), for instance, is an initiative to connect Uber and Lyft drivers, and joined forces with the local Teamster chapter11. Teamsters also started organizing Uber drivers in Seattle in 2017, after the city passed an ordinance allowing to represent contracted workers and despite the efforts made by the company to prevent the unionist activitites12. They provided drivers with a rideshare wage calculator that allows those to easily assess their actual hourly earnings after deducting expenses such as gas or maintenance13 . Uber drivers in London have also been organizing with the support of the United Private Hire Drivers, a branch of the Independent Union Workers of Great Britain. They even went on strike for 24 hours in October 2018, demanding an increase in fares, the reduction of commission to the platform and the end of drivers deactivations14 . The union asked costumers not to cross the digital picket line i.e. not to board rides on this day15. This was not the first time that gig workers went on strike in London. In September 2018, UberEats riders went on a wildcat strike and blocked traffic in their demand for a pay rise16. Riders have also successfully improved the employment rules at Deliveroo in Dublin through organizing17.

The spirit of these struggles has also tacitly spilled over to Germany and inspired new debates, as the following examples from different sectors will show.

Despite the challenges for organizing in the gig economy, bike couriers at Deliveroo and Foodora could prove that it is still possible. In 2016, riders in Berlin used the technology that is also essential for their work and connected through a whatsapp group where they could share their work experiences. Soon they also discussed their bad working conditions as well as the struggles of their co-workers in Italy and Great Britain. Inspired by this role model and supported by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union local FAU they decided to join the

international campaign „deliverunion“ which aimed at connecting bike couriers globally. They managed to represent the interests of both self-employed and employed bikers, demanding a wage rise of one Euro per hour for the employed bikers, and one Euro more per delivery for the self-employed colleagues. Other demands include maintenance costs for the bikes, guaranteed minimum hours, and more transparency about working hours. Public actions like bike rallies or the placement of broken bike parts in front of the Berlin headquarters of Deliveroo and Foodora caught a lot of media attention. This bad press and the fear of further damage to their reputation helped to achieve first concessions from the delivery platforms. Foodora now pays some of the maintenance costs and agreed on negotiations in 2017 with FAU and the affected workers. Even though these failed, they strengthened the organizing efforts. Right now the initiative offers monthly rider meetings and conncets with other campaigns throughout Europe18.

It is notable that the organizing effects by the independent union FAU in Berlin sparked the debate within DGB unions. The DGB affiliated food and catering union NGG launched the campaign „Liefern am Limit“ in 2017, which translates as „delivery close to the limit“. It was started in Cologne but quickly spread to other cities as well. The initiative organizes riders at Deliveroo and Foodora and has achieved to set up works councils at both companies in different cities. The first works council was elected at Delivery Cologne in February 2018. Even though Deliveroo had announced to tolerate the elections, the company applied a variety of methods to suffocate these attempts. For instance, there were still 107 eligible voters as of December 2017 but the temporary contracts were not renewed so that it decreased to only 35 by the time the elections took place in February 2018. Instead, a greater number of freelancers was hired for whom the works council has no mandate. In June 2018 a works council was elected at Foodora in Hamburg. Both Deliveroo and Foodora have not renewed the contracts of the works council members which can also end the existence of the works council. The NGG announced legal steps. A court in Cologne stated in December 2018 that ending the contract was illegal on account of formal errors19. The NGG initative also organizes national „riders days“ where riders are invited to meet up for a conference, share their experiences, discuss strategies and enhance the organizing effects. The 2019 riders day at Hamburg even included a meeting with the Federal Minister for Labor and Social Affairs. A joint statement calls for better working conditions in the field by applying existing laws and adapting others to the needs of the platform economy20.

Both the FAU and the NGG campaigns received a lot of public attention and media coverage, and have been characterized by a high degree of self-organization by comparison to other unionist campaigns. A survey by the union-related research institute Hans-Böckler Stiftung emphasizes this fact, and also points out that both unionist campaigns „focus their demands on economic and legal aspects rather than technological ones.“ (Ivanonva et al. 2018)

While the debate about food delivery working conditions has reached a huge audience both within and outside of unioins, other attempts of organizing platform workers have been less visible to a bigger public.

This holds true for the efforts to organize crowdworkers made by ver.di and, lately, also IG Metall.
As was described above, most crowdworkers are formally self-employed. Most unions in Germany have little experiences with organizing self-employed workers, since the existence of formal employment was prevalent until two decades ago, and not all sectors have been affected the same way.

It is therefore interesting to note that the services union ver.di has always been organizing self-employed and freelancers since it came into being through a merger of five unions in 2001. One of its precursors was the former union for media and print workers, with a lot of self-employed journalists, artists, and musicians among their membership. Journalists had been undergoing dramatic changes in the late-1990s, as the whole media sector was transforming. As the share of freelancers grew by comparison to permanently employed journalists, the union achieved a collective agreement with the daily newspapers that also covered part of the freelancers through a clause for working conditions „comparable to employment“, which has been renewed several times21. The membership services for self-employed members include legal advice on questions of copyright, contract law, or social security contributions, as well as legal representation, networking, or seminars. The counseling services are mainly offered through a specialized team in ver.di called „mediafon“ that offers a broad variety of information online, and personal support via web contact form and support hotline. According to its own accounts, ver.di organizes 30,000 self-employed members22. The experiences with „mediafon“ served as a good starting point to expand to the growing number of crowdworkers (Müller 2017), and has been supplemented, for instance, by a website targeting crowd/cloud workers, . However, it is unclear how well known these services are among the target group, as no evaluation has been published so for. From the authors´ own experience, „mediafon“ is relatively unknown among rank and file ver.di members and functionaries, at least at the regional level, even though it has been existing for a long time. Those who have heard of it mostly think that it is „just for journalists“ and are unaware of the services for other self-employed members.

The IG Metall also opened up its membership for self-employed in 2015 and launched special counseling services for crowdworkers, including legal advice on work related, copyrighs and patent rights, a hotline and legal representation in case of disputes23 .
The IG Metall webportal „“ allows crowdworkers to rate platforms and share their experiences. This is inspired by the fact that most major platforms have led to the development of fora in which users could chat about the work life, share recommendations on how to solve problems or perform certain tasks. These fora quickly transformed into platforms for organizing resistance. The most prominent example is „“ where users of Amazon´s microtasking platform Mechanical Turk started to help each other with job-related advice, and eventually started to organize petitions, protests, or mass mailings. This protests led to some improvements in the working condititions because Amazon feared to lose the users to other platforms.
The IG Metall activities, which built on these experiences, have also shown first results. The campain put enough pressure on the eight biggest German platforms so that these signed a „Code of Conduct“ affecting 2 million users. The „Code of Conduct“ sets minimum standards and includes regulations on fair payment, reasonable timing, and transparency, among others.24
The globally unique agreement was complemented by an Ombuds Office in November 2017, whose task is to settle disputes between crowdworkers, clients, and crowdsourcing platforms, and monitor the enforcement of the Code of Conduct25. Platforms and workers have the same amount of chairs on the Ombuds Office board. The report of the Ombuds Office for 2017 and 2018 shows that 7 complaints were filed to the office in 2017 after it was launched in November, and 23 complaints in 201826 (Ombudsstelle 2019). 15 cases could be solved through a mutual agreement, 3 cases were decided through a decree by the Ombuds Office. The report does not reveal details about the nature of these cases.
While the number of 23 cases for the entire year of 2018 appears low, it remains unclear if this is contributed to the fact that the Ombuds Office is new or if other factors prevent reporting to the Office. Further data on the implementation of the „Code of Conduct“ is also not avdailable yet.

The missing links

The previous examples do not replace a complete analysis of all existing organizing projects in Germany that are explicitly or implicitly connected with gig or crowd work. Nevertheless, these are generally considered „lighthouse“ projects, even though some of them receive more and others less media attention. All of these attempts indicate promising avenues: The way riders are connected with their daily work devices; the steps towards more reliable work conditions through a Code of Conduct for crowdsourcing platforms; the web union for web workers with expertise on self-employment and copyright questions. As we saw, most of these attempts are, however still at an early stage compared to other projects worldwide which makes a thourough evaluation difficult at this point.

The positive spill-over effects to the intra-unionist debate could be mostly observed with the FAU organzing of bike riders. While the working conditions and struggles of the bike riders have received a lot of attention among unionists as well as in the public, it seems that other sectors of the gig economy are missing or these projects go unnoticed even among the unionist community. Domestic services, like health care, have only been tacitly addressed, and it seems as if few resources have gone to research or even organizing projects in these less visible sectors of the gig economy.

Crowdworkers, on the other side, also received a lot of public attention, and many resources have been allocated to conferences, publications, and the installation of new membership services as we could see with the expansion of „“ and the „“. Communication about these services might reach the target group who is virtually well-connected and supposedly spreads information on the unionist platforms. However, many „traditional“ union functionaries who have been elected or work as professional unionists in other sectors have little knowledge about these new outreach attempts. This is an indicator that communication about these projects needs to be enhanced, and also, that crowdworkers are rarely part of the elected boards. In a same vein, and often overlapping, are the shortcomings in internal communication about special platforms with services for migrant workers.

To sum up, the spirit of new forms of organizing has sparked an intensive intra-unionist debate which could be transferred to other sectors. The debate has also put organizing self-employed workers on the agenda for more unions, and has helped addressing their needs with terms of an union. The link between German unions and crowd and gig workers is therefore not missing but still under construction.

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