It is called disruption. New digital technologies are having unforeseen impacts on industries and services in all directions. This fourth industrial revolution is testimony to the power of human ingenuity and innovation – and has the potential to bring major social benefits and challenges alike.
The impact on labour markets and workers has so far been largely unpredictable, unplanned, and by no means altogether positive. Digitalisation is generating a wide range of non-standard forms of work offering workers themselves low pay, little control and miserable working conditions.
It is unacceptable that people should be at the mercy of these rapid and sometimes unregulated changes. In the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) we believe that the EU, in full consultation with employers and workers – the social partners – should direct the future of digitalisation. It is not the technology itself but how it is used that matters. We want a say in shaping this new world of work.
Indeed, that is the title of a high-level, joint ETUC/European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) conference taking place in Brussels this week.
Join our almost 30.000 subscribers!
"Social Europe publishes thought-provoking articles on the big political and economic issues of our time analysed from a European viewpoint. Indispensable reading!"
Columnist for The Guardian
The ETUC has called for a permanent European Forum to involve trade unions, employers, educators and other relevant partners in outlining the future of digitalisation, including social aspects – a demand finally taken up in the recent European Commission Communication in the form of an annual stakeholder forum and twice-yearly roundtables.
Research shows that, if well regulated, digitalisation could open up new jobs, more flexible working arrangements and fresh forms of worker cooperation. It could free people from dangerous, dirty and monotonous tasks. But if not, huge numbers of medium-skilled jobs could disappear, leaving workers with precarious contracts, on call 24/7 and under constant surveillance, while increasing inequalities and undermining solidarity and trade union organisation.
Source: Christophe Degryse (ETUI 2016)
For example, an increasing number of workers are joining – either through choice or more often necessity – the so-called on-demand economy. Online platforms recruit freelance ‘contractors’ and supply them to companies as and when needed. Already, more than 2000 such crowdsourcing platforms exist. According to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), individual crowdworkers tend to be isolated, insecure, low-paid, have little autonomy and no way of enforcing their rights. Digital technology enables crowdsourcing to disregard national borders and platforms avoid legal responsibilities by claiming to be mere intermediaries between workers and companies. So EU intervention is needed to recognise and regulate platforms as employers, wherever they are based. Fair competition requires that they take responsibility in areas like career development, pensions, social security and corporate tax payments.
Listen to the latest episode of Social Europe Podcast
Crowdworkers must not be denied equal rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining. They must be able to organise together. Trade unions and other activists are already developing tools to enable workers to share information or identify bad employers, such as Turkopticon and IG Metall’s FairCrowdWork site. Trade unions in a number of EU countries have contributed to influential assessments of the impact of digitalisation on working life, such as the 2015 Mettling Report for the French Labour Ministry.
Unless fair standards are imposed from the outset, the exploding digital economy will provoke a downward spiral in working conditions, increasing the gap between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in society. The ETUC is demanding that digital workers should be covered by all EU and national labour legislation and collective agreements relating to working conditions and wages, with provisions for social protection, skills training – especially for women to rebalance the gender digital divide –, environmental standards, and full information and consultation with trade union representatives when changes are in the offing.
Digitalisation is a major challenge for workers, trade unions, and society in general, and cannot simply be left under the control of market forces: the law of the jungle and winner takes all. EU, national and regional authorities, employers and unions all have a part to play in shaping the use of new technologies for the general good.
The European Commission has been slow to take up this challenge, and the ETUC is concerned that a number of important questions are missing from the Communication.
- New opportunities for monitoring and surveillance by employers raise concerns about workers’ privacy and data protection, which need to be covered by legislation.
- Workers must have the ‘right to disconnect’, to protect the balance between work and family life.
- According to the Commission’s own figures, 41% of the EU workforce have few if any digital skills. In the future, these skills will be key to employment, and workers will need career-long training and upgrading. This is important above all for women. There are twice as many male as female graduates in science, technology and mathematics. Europe must not exclude half the population from the digital economy.
- In the same way, universal access to online services and e-government must be guaranteed, to avoid trapping especially the older generation in digital isolation.
- Intellectual property rights for creative workers must be protected.
Trade unions have an important role to play especially in organising self-employed workers, and supporting workers’ representatives and works councils in helping to shape digitalisation in their workplaces.
In the end, digital work should contribute to better working conditions, better pay, and safer, greener workplaces. A new legal framework may be necessary to achieve this and to make sure that Europe’s new world of work offers an inclusive vision for all workers.