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A platform economy, on what terms?

| By Berit Kvam

Is the digital platform economy a threat to the Nordic model? Which strategies are needed in order to influence the development? Is a separate Nordic platform economy possible? The Nordic Labour Journal shines a light on the future of work.

We do not know how much and in what way the digital platform economy will colour the future of work. The sharing economy seems to have had a limited impact so far. It has been a sustainable way of coming up with new ideas, and Nabobil, which allows you to hire someone’s car instead of owning one, is one example of how to approach car ownership.

Airbnb, one of the best known digital platforms, has contributed in good and bad ways to a development nobody could have predicted. The Icelandic researcher Katrín Ólafsdóttir thinks that Airbnb has stopped the Icelandic economy from overheating. The strong growth in the country’s tourism industry would probably not have gone so well without Airbnb, which provides 20 to 25 percent of tourist accommodation. In our report from Iceland, Matthildur S. Jóhannsdóttir explains how she and her family managed economically after the financial crisis because they could hire out their camper van through Airbnb. On the other hand, when entire streets turn into rental flats, which some say is the case in Amsterdam, price levels and neighbourhoods suffer.

Does the platform economy provide the unemployed with a chance to make a bob or two, or is this a way of exploiting labour for the benefit of the few? The ideals of sharing and sustainable development represent just a small part of what is now changing its name from the sharing economy to the platform economy, where the digital marketplace looks more and more like capitalism in its purest form. The platform is not just a venue where customer and provider can meet, but where labour has become a commodity while those who carry out the work are mainly poorly paid with little health and working environment protection.

“Being able to divide a job up into small pieces, while employees’ rights are not safeguarded, is something completely new,” point out Fafo researchers Jon Erik Dølvik and Kristin Jesnes.

Platforms which offer labour without taking on employers’ responsibilities and obligations, represent a growing challenge in the global market and erase notions like work, employer and employee.  

The question is whether the Nordic model, with its tripartite cooperation and a well-developed welfare system, makes us better prepared to deal with the digital platform economy, or whether the market forces behind the development become too strong? Which tools can politicians, authorities and the social partners use to make sure the digital economy operates according to the same terms as the rest of the labour market?

This week the research foundation Fafo is hosting the conference ‘Shaping the Future of Work in the Nordic Countries – the Impacts of the Sharing Economy and New Forms of Work’, on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The social partners need to adapt to the new economy, believes Danish researcher Anna Ilsøe. Frank Söderqvist from the Swedish trade union Unionen is ready to do just that.

His vision is that the Nordic tripartite cooperation must influence the development so that agreements and regulations become a part of the digital platforms that organise and distribute jobs.

“We want a separate Nordic version of the platform economy,” he says.

A Nordic version of the platform economy could become a competitive advantage and a benefit to the future of work. Perhaps this will be one of the proposals which will come out of the conference.

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