Disputes arise in platform work. This is a given. Especially in situations where a client can decline payment for completed work or evaluate work performed, or where a platform operator reserves the right to suspend or close a worker’s account for a variety of reasons, it should be expected that disputes can and will arise.
The first and best step in dispute resolution is to expect that disputes will arise and to design legal terms, platform processes, and task instructions in such a way as to (a) minimize the likelihood of them arising and (b) set out clear rules about how they will be handled if they nonetheless arise.
From a regulatory point of view, the “gold standard” in dispute resolution in platform work may be set out by the EU Regulation 2019/1150, the so-called “Platform-to-Business” Regulation. (Text of the regulation is available here.) This regulation sets out two levels of dispute resolution that can be invoked by a worker on a platform. First, the platform should operate an “internal complaint-handling system” to receive and handle complaints. Second, the platform should name external mediators with which they are willing to mediate disputes that cannot be resolved via the internal complaint-handling system. Even for platforms to which this regulation may not apply, this “two level” system is a useful model that can significantly reduce the risk of disputes escalating into costly and protracted legal battles. The “Ombuds Office,” described below, follows this model.
Dispute resolution lessons from Germany: the Crowdsourcing Code of Conduct and its Ombuds Office
The Crowdsourcing Code of Conduct was created in 2015 by the German software testing platform Testbirds. In 2016 it was improved with input from IG Metall, the trade union in the German manufacturing sectory. It has been signed by nine platforms and the German Crowdsourcing Association (Deutscher Crowdsourcing Verband).
The Code of Conduct commits crowdsourcing platforms to principles such as fair payment, respectful interaction, clear task descriptions, and a regulated work approval process.
Platforms that have signed the Code of Conduct participate in a dispute resolution system, called the Ombuds Office (“Ombudsstelle”).
If a worker has a dispute with a platform that has signed the Code of Conduct, they can file a complaint with the Code of Conduct Ombuds Office, managed by the trade union.
When a complaint is filed, the Secretariat contacts the responsible platform. If the dispute cannot be resolved bilaterally with the support of the Ombuds Office Secretariat, the case is reviewed by a 5-person panel composed of one crowd worker, one trade unionist, one platform employee, one Crowdsourcing Association representative, and a neutral chair.
The goals of this process are to clarify all the facts of the situation and to arrive at a solution that all involved parties can agree to. This is possible in many cases because many decisions disputed by platform workers arise either from technical errors on the part of the client or platform, misunderstandings on the part of the platform, or miscommunication.
The Ombuds Office process, in clarifying the facts, often leads to the platform operator voluntarily addressing the problem to the satisfaction of the worker.