Articles Developments in PIL Scholarship

The Metaverse and the Applicable Labour Law

Marco Biasi (Università degli Studi di Milano) has published Decent Work and the Virtual Dimension: Reflections about the Regulation of Work in the Metaverse in Lavoro Diritti Europa 2023/1. The article (written in Italian) deals with conflict-of-laws and substantive law issues of working in the virtual world.
What is the Metaverse?

The metaverse is more than the eponymous project of Facebook, which has recently rebranded itself as “Meta”. The term was first mentioned in 1992 in the novel “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson, and describes a virtual space in which participants are fully immersed and can interact with each other almost as in real life. In essence, the metaverse is thus a special type of computer programme which allows people to interact in digital space. To do so, they need equipment, in particular a virtual reality headset and controllers, which are readily available today at a relatively affordable price. Nowadays, a multitude of projects exist aiming to create such a metaverse. Well-known projects in this field are Decentraland and The Sandbox, and of course the ”Metaverse” developed by Meta.

What Kind of Disputes Could Arise?

In the metaverse, various forms of activity can be performed, such as office work, reunions, sales meetings, education – under an employment agreement. As such, disputes between employers and employees will soon emerge, and with them, the question which law applies to work performed. The problem of connecting a metaverse to the labour law of a particular nation state is as obvious as it is baffling.

Where is Work in the Metaverse Habitually Carried Out?

In the European Union, according to Article 8 Rome I Regulation, the country from which or in which the work is habitually performed is of particular importance for determining the law applicable to a contract of employment, irrespective of whether there is a choice of law. Although Article 8(1) Rome I Regulation follows the principle of party autonomy by allowing the parties to choose the applicable law, this choice is limited by the mandatory rules of the country in or from which the work is habitually carried out.
At first sight, both connecting factors seem to lead nowhere given that the work is performed in the virtual space. But Marco Biasi rightly distinguishes the situation of metaverse workers from that of posted workers and pulls us down to a more realistic view point: an employee who sits in their home in country X with a headset and a controller in fact performs their work in this country, and nowhere else.

Labour Law as Overriding Mandatory Rules

This seems to settle the question, yet it would provide very strong incentives for metaverse employers to pick and choose employees living in countries with the lowest labour law standards possible. One way of avoiding this problem could be to assume a closer connection between the contract and the country of establishment of the employer under Art 8(4) Rome I. Marco Biasi suggests, however, another solution: if the employees themselves were to bring a claim in the country of domicile or seat of the employer, the courts there could apply the provisions of their national labour law as overriding mandatory rules (Art 9 Rome I Regulation).

The (possibly) too lenient rules of the place of habitual residence of the worker could thus be overcome and fairness between employer and employee could be re-established. In this way, a nucleus of essential workers protections could be preserved, e.g. the maximum working hours, the minimum wage, and health and safety rules.

There are, however, two problems with this suggestion: First, the employee would have to make the effort of bringing a suit in the country of the employer, which will often be fraught with difficulties such as distance, language, and costs. Second, the suggestion presupposes that mandatory labour law rules could be applied via Article 9 Rome I, even though Article 8 Rome I seems to conclusively determine their application. While many authors indeed are of this view, it is in no way the subject of consensus.

Going Further

Marco Biasi assumes that, in any event, the protection of the employee will be incomplete and differ from country to country. Therefore, he suggests introducing international rules (such as a convention) on the rights of metaverse employees. Some problems will be hard to solve, though; trade negotiations on behalf of a class of workers scattered around the planet will be particularly challenging. There remain, therefore, enough problems to think about even after this first in-depth study of labour law in the metaverse.

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