Protest at the Council of the EU by platform workers

Bolt’s shady lobbying on the Platform Work Directive, exposed by internal documents, causes public outcry in Estonia

Internal documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) show that extremely close coordination took place between gig economy companies and the Estonian government, in order to water down social protections for platform workers. Reporting by Euractiv based on the documents has caused a public outcry in Estonia. 

The EU Platform Work Directive has been subject to one of the most significant lobby campaigns during this parliament's mandate. Previous research by Observatoire des Multinationales showed the great lengths to which digital platforms such as Uber and Bolt have gone to safeguard their business model - one based on flexibility, low costs and few social rights for platform workers. This model, as the Uber files showed, was rolled out across Europe using unscrupulous and in some cases illegal tactics, backed up by aggressive lobbying of influential politicians.

Although a last minute compromise was reached on the Platform Work Directive between the European Parliament and member states in March 2024, gig economy companies were able to mobilise crucial member states, including France and Estonia, to push back against ambitious proposals from the Parliament. Now internal documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory from the Estonian Ministry for Economy show how closely coordinated this counteroffensive actually was. The documents once again show that the lack of transparency at the Council of the EU mostly benefits well-connected and well-funded lobbyists.

Bolt dictates letter to Spanish presidency

During autumn 2023, gig economy companies were increasingly alarmed as the Spanish presidency moved in the direction of a compromise with the EU Parliament on the Platform Work Directive. The compromise would have forced them to provide a proper employment contract to platform workers in cases where the platforms had clear control and direction over the worker.

The Estonian company Bolt quickly decided to act, and made use of its close connections with the Estonian government to push back against the Spanish presidency. In an email sent on 26th October to the Estonian Deputy General for Economy Sandra Särav, Bolt’s EU lobbyist Aurélien Pozzana wrote that the company's meeting with “both the Minister of Economy and the Minister of Finance went well”.

Pozzana further said that following up on these meetings, he was sharing "a draft letter we hope the Estonian Government could sign and encourage other "allied" Member States to [do] so as well, with the aim of asking the Spanish Presidency to stick to the agreement adopted in June within the Council." Shockingly, the letter was written as if drafted by the Estonian government, rather than by Bolt.

“We, the ministers of labor of +++ EU Member states, are writing to express reservations about the direction of negotiations on the proposal for Improving Working Conditions in Platform Work”, the first line of the letter reads. The end of the letter listed several Member States that Bolt thought would support the letter.

It is unclear what ultimately happened to the letter drafted by Bolt, but according to information obtained by Euractiv the letter was indeed later sent by the Estonian Permanent Representation in Brussels to the Spanish Presidency.

The Estonian official and former Bolt lobbyist at the heart of the scandal

To make matters even worse, the Estonian official Sandra Särav, to whom the letter was addressed, has extensive connections with Bolt. Särav worked as a lobbyist with Bolt until 2021, and subsequently worked at the lobby firm Meta Advisory until February 2022, before joining the Estonian Ministry of the Economy. By 2023, she was already caught up in a scandal, when the Estonian Public Radio ERR revealed that Särav had failed to disclose that she still owned stock options in Bolt while working for the Ministry. Reacting to the story, Särav said that she did not know the value of the options, but that it was “negligible”. In May 2024 however, ERR revealed that the options are actually worth more than 30,000 euros – more than the average annual income in Estonia. 

The news has created public outcry in Estonia. Transparency International Estonia stated that Bolt writing a letter that “aimed to represent the position of the Estonian government […] crosses a line”. The former Estonian Foreign Minister Jürgen Ligi also criticised the Minister for Economic Affairs and Information Technology Tiit Riisalo for being too close to private interests. 

Bolt’s influence on Estonian politics is significant. In an interview two weeks after the outcry, Bolt CEO Markus Villig indicated that Bolt has donated around 220,000 euros to several political parties in Estonia.

Reacting to the revelations, Minister Riisalo felt pressed to state that Särav “will definitely continue in office.”

The correspondence with Bolt regarding the draft Ministerial letter should have been filed by Särav on a public registry in accordance with Estonian laws. In an interview with the ERR Särav said she had not intentionally hidden correspondence with Bolt and she had not logged it due to an “human error”. In the same interview Särav stated that the Platform Work Directive “is not within her area of responsibility” and that she had flagged to the Ministry that she didn’t want to deal with issues that concerned Bolt.

The emails obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory, however, suggest a different story. Särav was one of the main officials being lobbied by multiple platform companies. In December 2023, at the very moment that the Spanish Presidency had concluded a compromise with Parliament, Särav received an email from Meta Advisory, a lobby firm working on behalf of Delivery Platforms Europe, whom Särav had worked for just the previous year: “hey. what do we think of this p[latform] w[ork] d[irective] provisional agreement offer that spain has put together given the momentum - can we stand up with the french and express it? [the Finnish platform company] wolt thinks it's a particularly bad compromise text.”

A couple of days later, an Estonian official wrote to Bolt lobbyist Henri Arras that “like several other member states, Estonia could not support the text”. With the Spanish attempt to strike a compromise with the Parliament thus defeated, negotiations continued under the Belgian presidency. The documents show that lobbying by the platform sector during the Belgian Presidency continued unabated, and make clear the key role Särav played in that lobbying offensive.

On January 18th 2024, lobbyist Robert Torvelainen from the Finnish platform company Wolt sent detailed suggestions for changes to specific articles of the Platform Work Directive to Särav. Just a few days later, on 22nd, Torvelainen again wrote to her: “Happy Monday! As there was a new text from the BE Presidency, here are new comments from the sector. Unfortunately it seems that in parts the text took a step back even in terms of clarity, which is worrying ahead the Coreper on Wednesday.” 

On 5th February 2024, Bolt lobbyist Henri Arras wrote to several Estonian officials, including an official at the Estonian Permanent Representation: “I share our analysis of the PWD text shared yesterday. In brief: The EP is trying to rush through a proposal that they have failed repeatedly before.”

The emails also show how industry tried to postpone the directive until after the elections. “In general, we are quite skeptical of this approach of national presumption and the push to try to get this finalised at any cost before the EP elections”, Wolt lobbyist Torvelainen wrote to Särav on February 12th

In March 2024, in an unexpected turn of events, Estonia and Greece ended their opposition to an already heavily watered down compromise text, which leaves it up to national governments to develop rules regarding who should be considered a worker. The final text was ratified by the Parliament in April, during the last plenary session before the elections. Trade unions celebrated the compromise, stating that “Uber does not make the law”. And while platform companies reacted with dismay to the compromise, it is nevertheless clear that their far-reaching influence with member states, including Estonia and France, succeeded in securing the watering down of the original ambitious proposal to improve the rights of some of the most precarious workers in the EU.

The documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory can be accessed here.

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