Employee? Self employed? What am I?  

31 July 2019


On today’s agenda for the Bavarian Labor Court in Munich: a lawsuit from a crowdworker. In the lawsuit, the worker claims to have been falsely self employed by the platform “Roamler.” In a last-minute decision on Monday, the court moved the court date to November 6. But the case is still worth talking about, as it could have broad implications.


The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on the case in its most recent print issue (Issue 31 of 2019; available online with payment). The main points are: Peter Schmidt (not his real name) starting doing small paid location-based photography tasks via the Roamler app late in 2016. He started at “Level 1,” like everyone else, but advanced quickly to “Level 3,” which allowed to earn a relatively large amount of money for that kind of work.


Der Spiegel author Markus Dettmer wrote: “By the end of 2017 he had completed 2,978 tasks on the platform. As a result, in the platform’s internal ranking system he was the most successful ‘Roamler’ (i.e., worker).” He worked on the platform between 15 and 20 hours per week, earning on average around 1,700 Euro per month.


In April 2018, there was a dispute about a photo. Roamler informed Schmidt that he would no longer be allowed to complete tasks on the platform and that his account would be deactivated. Schmidt, with the support of IG Metall, is suing to have this decision reversed.


The cases raises fundamental questions not only for crowdworkers but for anyone who earns money working on or through a digital platform, including YouTube, Instagram, and others. The old roles and rules don’t seem to fit well to the working relationships in this new “digital world” — here’s the employer, here’s the employee. On digital platforms, apparently, it’s not so simple.


Der Spiegel quotes the Munich-based attorney Rüdiger Helm: “In the digital world, phones and apps are more than just a communication tool.” Rather, apps and algorithms are used to manage workers.


How the case before the Bavarian Labor Court ends is of course still open. Even if Schmidt wins, it won’t mean that everyone who works on a platform is suddenly an employee. The question “self employed or employee” has to be decided on a case by case basis. But it would be a signal: these new working relationships need new rules.