‘Experiences, Exclusions, Expectancies’: Discussing platform work and the Danish welfare state with workers, unions and scholars

Konstantinos Floros
Published on: 2023-04-04

Digital labor platforms proliferated in Denmark in the past decade. Although their growth was not exponential as in other countries, platform companies were greeted by the Danish government as part of “the future of work” and as a business model whose opportunities should be exploited. During my PhD project, which investigates Danish housecleaning platform work by jointly analyzing views from below (workers’ experiences) and institutional points of view (policymaking and regulation), I very soon documented that platform housecleaning in Denmark consists of mainly migrant female labor and realized that this business model practically excludes cleaners from most welfare provisions due to a combination of their classification as self-employed and restrictions deriving from their socio-legal status. Moreover, a research gap was evident in the documentation of platform workers’ experiences and perceptions of their work in their own words, although lately, ethnographic and qualitative accounts of platform work from the workers’ perspective have stepped up in Denmark both in the academic context (e.g., Kusk, Duus, Scott Hansen & Floros 2022; Kusk 2022 and in news media.

This post sums up a roundtable discussion I organized during the Welfare after Digitalization Conference at the IT University of Copenhagen in November 2022. My intention was to provide an academic venue where workers and trade union representatives could express their perceptions and exchange experiences across the diverse sectors of platform work in Denmark. Platform companies were not invited to the discussion, since contrary to workers, they get invited to various public, corporate and academic events, and have easy access to news media outlets. The event was publicized by word of mouth to avoid platforms’ presence and the subsequent exposure of vulnerable workers to unnecessary fear of reprisals. The goal of the discussion was multiple: raising awareness, especially among the academic community, supporting the creation of bridges between unions and platform workers of various sectors, and discussing in public the underprivileged work-life realities of the people providing services through platforms, services that have come to be considered for granted in contemporary urban settings.

The planning of the roundtable discussion faced the difficulties expected when organizing events with precariously employed workers. Study and work obligations, inability to postpone an overseas flight and the untimely firing of a platform courier impeded two housecleaners, a courier and a translator from joining, but the discussion was enriched by the interventions of two platform workers (a housecleaner and a food-delivery worker), two union representatives and a Danish legal scholar who specializes in platform work. The session was titled ‘Platform work and the Danish welfare state: Experiences, Exclusions, Expectancies’ and the audience consisted of around 50 people, mainly academics (despite efforts to the contrary, only very few workers attended).

A unionized food courier from 3F Copenhagen, who used to work for Wolt kicked off the discussion. He addressed the tax implications of the misclassification of couriers as self-employed and the ineffectiveness of platform companies to act as stepping stones towards a better employment future as topics of concern for food delivery work in Denmark. He referred to a recent decision of the Tax Agency which assessed that Wolt couriers should be considered as employees and showed the contradiction in how couriers—especially migrants—are unaware of their tax obligations, thus end up owing money or paying fines. Regarding the stepping stone narrative, he said that workers acquire a lot of skills, but they can only use them for doing the same job:

I have spoken to many couriers who have had full-time plus working, like 60 hour-weeks, who are totally stuck in the job and they are unable to gain any skills that can lead them to more secure employment, whether this would be some time to learn Danish, or another kind of training or course. (W1)

Finally, he spoke about why he considers that Wolt in Denmark constitutes largely migrant labor. For many of the workers, this is their first or one of their first jobs in Denmark, he said. Judging from his personal experience as a worker and from efforts to organize, he estimated that only 10 to 20% of the workers are Danes, questioning Wolt’s claim that 45% of the couriers are Danes:

…there might be a lot of people that have access to the platform but never use it, or that very rarely use it. The ones especially who do it full time are, I would say, very largely migrant workers. (W1)

The migrant platform housecleaner that followed narrated how she signed up to platform housecleaning thinking that this would be a temporary solution until finding a “real job” but ended up doing this for more than three years. After providing an account of the hardships of the job, she explained how several clients try to minimize their costs by booking short shifts for big houses and demanding intense performance, simultaneously using ratings as means of pressure. Platforms’ calculation tools that suggest suitable shifts according to the square footage of the customers’ houses, aggravate this situation.

So eventually, after a few negotiations back and forth I stopped accepting bookings like that, where I could see the discrepancy between the actual size and the one reported by the client. I just rejected those bookings and then I was punished by the platform. My profile was deactivated twice, and I was threatened to be eliminated by the platform because I made them look bad. (W2)

She went on to describe how crucial ratings and platform reputation are for establishing a successful profile and securing enough bookings. Nevertheless, if success is measured by the number of bookings, one should always bear in mind that continuous strenuous labor in diverse environments with varying working conditions brings about injuries that a platform worker can hardly deal with, due to the welfare exclusions she is confronting:

So, in almost three years I have actually achieved nothing positive about myself, I have earned no pension, I have financial insecurity, when I am sick, I have to work extra hard afterwards to recover financially… And for me to earn the amount so that I would be comfortable, so that I can pay union fees and have a holiday fund for myself and the health insurance, I physically can't do that, because then I would be crippled and in a short time actually. (W2)

Finally, she briefly referred to the role of the platform companies in influencing hourly fees, how the platform’s communication on Covid-related issues was more money oriented than displaying care towards the workers, and how tax issues in Denmark are creating great difficulties to the mainly migrant platform housecleaners.

The two next discussants, a consultant from the HK union and a Danish legal scholar, highlighted their concerns on the pitfalls created by workers’ classification as typical self-employed. They agreed that misclassification, lack of unanimous political will to engage with solutions, and the difficulty for unions to approach workers (and vice versa) have led to a standstill. They both discussed possible avenues for moving forward, such as collective organization of self-employed workers, policymaking in the national and European level, and collective action.

In the discussion that followed, several scholars, union members and workers voiced opinions, concerns or simply asked questions within a wide range of interests. The largest part of the academic audience, except for platform work researchers, were unaware of the specific problems and structural incompatibilities stemming from the platform business model. The centrality of data-driven narratives of efficiency, algorithmic management, and data accessibility were topics brought up by scholars, while workers and union members were more keen to discuss flexibility, lack of better alternatives for migrant workers and how to increase workers’ power of negotiation.

My overall assessment of the roundtable discussion is positive: The initial interventions provided a concise overview of the workers’ and unions’ perspective of platform labor in the Danish context. The multiplicity of the topics and angles presented sparked a constructive exchange of opinions, which ranged from everyday experiences to wider scientific argumentations. Of course, there are limitations in such events, especially when they are not part of bottom-up, grass root initiatives, which would build upon the outcome of the discussion as part of a wider agenda. Moreover, a larger participation of platform workers could potentially lead to more fruitful cross-sectoral discussions, teasing out and addressing commonalities and differences within the Danish platform labor market. Nevertheless, I consider it important to hold such critical discussions among workers, scholars, and union representatives at times when most academic environments are replete with providing solution-oriented proposals for neoliberal policymaking and funding coming from mainly corporate sources sustains research on the future of work. That said, I would like to thank the Welfare after Digitalization project for giving me the opportunity to organize this event at the ITU, the union members and scholars that participated as discussants and audience, and especially the platform workers who spent their—literally—valuable time in co-organizing, participating and intervening in the event.


Konstantinos Floros is a PhD student at IT University of Copenhagen, investigating platform housecleaning in Denmark