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Digital labour platforms: The COLLEEM research project

Digital labour platforms are a new form of coordinating the provision of labour services enabled by the latest technological revolution. The COLLEEM project provides estimates on the prevalence and conditions of platform work in Europe.

Digital labour platforms are a new form of coordinating the provision of labour services enabled by the digital revolution. They allow clients to match the demand for a specific task with the supply of a worker who possesses the capability to perform the task. 

Digital labour platforms can be broadly classified according to the type of tasks and skill levels required:  

  • on-location tasks, like ride-hailing or delivery coordinated online, typically requiring low or medium skills  

  • “microwork” or “crowd work” platforms coordinate small online tasks, typically requiring few skills 

  • freelancing platforms coordinate larger online tasks or projects typically involving high, specialised skills 

Digital labour platforms offer new opportunities, especially for workers who need flexibility and those who have relatively low experience, but present a series of challenges, especially regarding the labour market status and working conditions of platform workers. 

Measuring platform work in the European Union 

To assess the impact of digital labour platforms on employment and working conditions, we need precise estimates of the number of people doing platform work. We also need information on the type of services they provide, how frequently these services are provided, and how much money is earned. Crucially, we need to understand whether platform work is just a part-time occupation (or “side gig”) – as it is often claimed – or if it represents a major source of income, and for which workers.  

The COLLEEM surveys 

In 2017, the JRC conducted the COLLEEM pilot survey, in partnership with the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG-EMPL). The first pilot wave was completed in 2017 and gathered a total of 32,389 responses from 14 Member States. A second pilot (the COLLEEM 2018 survey) gathered a total of 38,022 responses from internet users aged between 16 and 74 years old in 16 EU Member States: Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Slovakia, Romania, and the United Kingdom. 

Policy impact and interinstitutional collaboration 

The European Commission Communication on "A European Agenda for the Collaborative Economy" included policy orientations and guidance for Member States on how to apply existing EU law to the regulatory challenges raised by what were then called “collaborative economy” platforms. It recommends Member States to review existing national regulations and to determine whether they are still pertinent or should be adapted to address ex-ante the potential market failures that new collaborative economy business models may generate. 

The Communication underlines the importance of establishing a monitoring framework covering both the evolving regulatory environment and economic and business developments, given the dynamic nature of these business models. 

The platforms at the core of the collaborative economy pose new policy challenges both at the EU and national and municipal level as policymakers need to ensure consumer protection, preserve labour rights, avoid the erosion of the tax base and regulate new activities and ensure a level-playing field with incumbent actors, without stifling innovation. 

Platforms have been instrumental in facilitating innovation and offering new opportunities for both consumers and companies. They are a powerful means to match people or undertakings with certain needs to those with the means to fulfil them. They contribute to growth and job creation as they lower market entry barriers and costs, making it possible for anyone from large to small companies and individuals to engage in two-sided markets. 

New successful business models leveraging the potential of digital platforms have emerged in a number of areas, transportation and accommodation being the most well-known examples. 

It is in this context that in 2016 the European Commission presented its assessment of online platforms and subsequently released a Communication on "A European Agenda for the Collaborative Economy". 

The latter includes policy orientations and guidance for Member States on how to apply existing EU law to the regulatory challenges raised by collaborative economy platforms, classified under five main areas: 

  • Market access and licensing 

  • Taxation 

  • Consumer protection 

  • Liability 

  • Employment 

Interinstitutional collaboration 

COLLEEM is developed by the JRC and DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion to investigate the extent and impact of the digital labour platforms phenomenon in Europe and address the knowledge gaps identified in the above EC Communication and Staff Working Document as well as in previous JRC research. 

The JRC has worked in close collaboration with other institutions, such as Eurofound, OECD and the ILO as well as Eurostat to refine and harmonise the definition of ‘platform workers’. The COLLEEM surveys were among the first exercises carried out to estimate the size of the platform economy and to analyse in depth the socio-economic profiles and working conditions of platform workers. Concepts and results from the COLLEEM surveys have been used in the 2021 EU’s proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving working conditions in platform work (COM(2021) 762).   

Future challenges: from platform work to algorithmic management in traditional workplaces 

Based on the lessons learned from the COLLEEM surveys, the JRC Changing nature of work and skills team, in collaboration with DG Employment, has carried out a third wave of COLLEEM, adopting a new and improved methodology.  

First, in order to provide more reliable estimates of the phenomenon and better-quality information, the fieldwork for COLLEM III was carried out selecting a random sample of respondents and conducting face-to-face (CAPI) interviews in two EU member states: Spain and Germany. Secondly, in order to ensure that a significant number of platform workers would be reached, the fieldwork included a Mixed Boost alternative (non-probabilistic online recruitment and CATI administration) as well as a face-2-face additional boost, which involved free search. The final samples consist of 2,991 respondents in Germany (2,689 randomly selected and the rest belonging to the booster sample) and 4,002 in Spain (3,673 randomly selected and 329 belonging to the booster sample). Thirdly, pre-empting the possibility that platform like methods are spreading to traditional workplaces, the questionnaire was substantially extended to include a battery of questions on algorithmic management and (digital) surveillance. The answers to these questions will provide the first robust quantitative evidence on algorithmic management practices and their impact on individual workers


A European Agenda for the Collaborative Economy  

Background publications 

COLLEEM survey results 

Commission proposals to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms