Platform work: digital slave labour?

The rumblings on the working conditions of those engaged in local digital platform work have been around for some time. Last February one of them, a 28-year-old Nepalese, was involved in a fatal traffic accident in Marsa when on a food delivery trip.

This is not just a local issue. The matter is also on the radar of the European Union which is considering the introduction of an EU wide Directive “on improving the working conditions in platform work”. 

An impact assessment drawn up as an EU Commission staff working document emphasises that some of those working through digital platforms face poor working conditions and inadequate access to social protection. A number of them, says the impact assessment, are falsely classified as self-employed. As a result of the misclassification of their employment status they tend to lose various rights and protections. These include rights relative to working time, minimum wage (including the statutory bonus payable in June and December), paid annual leave, paid sick leave, parental leave and occupational health and safety.

The industrial action by Bolt food couriers last week brought to light the plight of local platform workers. “Almost nobody knows what we must go through just so that they get their food quickly” one of the couriers was quoted as saying.

It is not so well known that the food courier platform operators, in addition to collecting the delivery charges, collect substantial commissions from the food outlets which they serve. At times, I am informed that this may be as high as 30 per cent of the value of the delivery food. It was pointed out to me that this commission charged is at times evident in a discrepancy between the prices quoted online and those displayed at the food outlets themselves!

It has to be underlined that these substantial commissions do not end up in the pockets of the food couriers but in the bank accounts of the platform operators!

Some of the couriers are paid at a miserly rate of €2 per delivery, at times even less. The lucky ones can get as much as €2.50 per delivery or slightly better! This signifies that they must work very long hours to try and earn a very basic income on which to exist. To make matters worse, in those cases where the couriers are “independent” or “falsely” classified as self-employed they end up paying their own expenses. As a consequence, they end up much worse off!

This is twenty first century slave labour. It is in fact digital slave labour!

After the industrial action last week, some catering establishments have voiced their concerns as the action taken by the food courier platform workers has at the end of the day impacted their bottom line too. I do not recall hearing their concern on utilising digital slave labour: they did so without qualms. They had no second thoughts or pangs of conscience.

The catering establishments are not directly responsible for the manner in which digital platform work operates. However, the fact that they make use of it renders them complicit in the slave labour industry being developed to satisfy their bottom lines. They make it possible.

Last week’s industrial action was an eye opener for all, including those who feigned ignorance as to what was going on. Now is the time for all round action. This must also include action on the part of consumers who should not use the services of those who keep encouraging and making use of digital slave labour.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 7 August 2022

Towards a zero waste target


The linear model of our economy follows a take-make-use-waste path as a result of which we extract resources from the earth which we use and subsequently throw away. In contrast to this cradle-to-grave trajectory, the circular economy seeks cyclical sustainability.

In a circular economy, the management of waste is paramount.  It seeks to retain the resources used in our products in the economic loop as it is considered that they can be re-used to form other products. William McDonough and Michael Braungart describe this as a cradle-to-cradle process in their seminal book Cradle to Cradle. Remaking the way we make things. This is in contrast to the throw-away society which follows a cradle-to-grave path.

This is not only makes environmental sense, it also makes economic sense. Malta’s Waste Management Plan for the period 2014-2020 tentatively points in this direction by establishing a zero waste target that is to be achieved by 2050. Thirty-three years may seem to be too far away but, in reality, it may be just enough to change our mindset. A lot of hard work is involved but, at the end of the day, it will also be rewarding.

It involves the application of what is known as the waste hierarchy to different waste streams. Waste minimisation or prevention is always the preferred option. Ideally we should aim to prevent the generation of waste and in a number of cases this can easily be done. For example, we can prevent the generation of a substantial portion of organic waste by giving more thought to the food intake in our homes. We can also reduce the amount of food packaging by opting for more fresh food which is generally local.

Obviously, most of us have very little time to think about the consequences of our large number of small decisions which end up generating a lot of waste. Convenience generally wins the day, as we often opt for packaged and processed food. As a result, we not only generate avoidable waste but also end up eating less healthy food.

A pilot project related to organic waste is currently under way in 8 localities in Malta and Gozo. It has been going on for some time and although information as to the manner in which the localities involved have reacted is not publicly available, it is known through the grapevine that this has been varied but is improving.

Collecting the organic waste part of domestic waste, if carried out successfully, may well reduce the amount going to landfill by around 50 percent. There is also an added benefit: when the organic part of our waste is processed in a waste recycling plant, the resulting gases are used to produce electricity instead of adding to greenhouse gas emissions. This is surely a win-win situation.

Reducing 50 percent of our waste through the responsible management of just one part of it is very good policy. However, this requires much more investment in environmental education in our localities. Wasteserve, being ultimately responsible for waste management in the Maltese Islands, has taken a lot of initiatives in this respect, but much more needs to be done.  It is never enough.

Waste is a collection of discarded resources and realising the value that we throw away is, in reality, what the circular economy is all about – hence the target of a zero waste society.

published in The Independent on Sunday : 29 January 2017

Snippets from the EGP Manifesto: (12) A food revolution

fresh food 


Our food chain is malfunctioning. Industrial agriculture, based on pesticides, monocultures and an overuse of antibiotics, is thriving at the expense of our health, the environment and increased animal suffering. Recurring food scandals have made consumers justifiably insecure about what we are eating and where it comes from.

The Greens want to promote sustainable, healthy, tasty, diverse and ethical food, not standardised, tasteless food designed simply to look good on supermarket shelves. This means encouraging local production chains, organic farming and fair trade products from developing countries. We have succeeded in fighting several misleading practices, and in improving country of origin and nanoingredients labelling. We will continue to demand improved transparency in food labelling. With Europe throwing away 90 million tons of food annually, we also want action to cut down on food waste. We have launched a food revolution, increasing public awareness, personal engagement and participative democracy in determining and improving food policies throughout Europe. (EGP 2014 Manifesto section entitled  : Better Food, Better Lives.)