The explosion of the sharing economy is threatening to "kneecap" workers rights and social protection systems dating back to the 19th Century, European Labour Unions warned on Monday.
Unveiling new research which showed that nearly one in eight adults in Sweden are now earning part of their income from activities in the so-called "gig" economy, leaders of some of Europe's biggest workers' organisations said it was time for governments to wake up to the scale of change underway in labour markets.
Philip Jennings, General Secretary of the UNI Global Union, said organised labour was facing a challenge as big as the environmental movement confronted in climate change as it tries to promote the regulation of a sector its sees systematically sidestepping social charges and any form of worker security.
"There is a growing realisation it really is different this time," Jennings told AFP on the sidelines of a four-day conference in Rome.
"It has become very clear to us that the digi-capitalist is as red-necked and rough as their industrial forefathers were.
"The 'click and go, click and leave' economy cannot be allowed to kneecap workers' opportunities."
Jennings said governments were also waking up to the implications of companies like Uber being able to profit from the services of workers while avoiding paying payroll taxes and other employer obligations because their drivers are classified as self-employed.
"As unions we come at the problem from the point of view of trying to ensure dignity in work. They (the ministers) see it as destroying a social insurance model based on work that has been around in Europe since the time of (19th Century German leader Otto von) Bismark.
Italian union leader Susanna Camusso said the inherent precarity of the new jobs being created in the sharing economy were an indication of how the European Union has abandoned its interest in promoting minimum standards across the bloc.
"It is appropriate we are meeting in the city where the EU was founded because what we need now is a Europe as it was at the beginning, not as it has become today," Camusso said.
- 'Stakes are high' -
Frank Bsirske, head of Germany's giant services sector union, ver.di, said owners of digital platforms could not believe their luck in being able to employ workers for exactly as long as they are needed, then discard them the moment they are no longer required.
"People don't know if they will work from one week to the next, even from one hour to the next.
"There are no paid holidays, no pensions, no cover for when people get sick."
Bsirske said the priority for unions had to be getting workers employed on a temporary, task-based basis via online platforms to be recognised as such, so that they are protected by existing social legislation -- much of which does not apply if the worker is considered self-employed or freelance.
The Swedish research revealed that 12% of the working-age population (around 737,000 people) were already working in the "gig" economy and 24% were trying to find work this way. Around a third of those active in the sector earned their main or sole income from it.
The findings are broadly in line with those of a study in Britain, which were published last year. Similar surveys are due to be published for Austria and Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, France and Belgium in the coming months.
Jennings said unions faced a tough battle to push the questions raised by the changing economy up the political agenda because companies like Amazon and Uber were able to spend millions on lobbying governments to eschew proper regulation.
"They are trying to shake confidence in the models we have in Europe," he said. "The stakes are high. This is not a time for governments to go into hiding."