Decent jobs in a digitised world of work

From June 22nd to June 25th 2017, a seminar on the topic of "Decent jobs in a digitised world of work" took place in St. Pölten, Austria, organized by the KAB Deutschlands (Katholische Arbeitnehmer-Bewegung Deutschlands e.V.), with the support of EZA and the European Union. The seminar was part of the EZA project coordination on the topic "Impact of the digital working environment on the lives of workers and their families - social-ethical considerations".

Digitization is a burning issue. The arrival of intelligent technologies in industry is regarded as the "fourth industrial revolution", or industry 4.0 for short. The pace of digital penetration of all areas of life is enormous and the challenges are great. Many forms of work are increasingly losing their local and temporal boundaries. In the future, more and more activities will be made by machines. The developments were analyzed and evaluated at a European seminar held by KAB Germany in St. Pölten, Austria. Representatives of workers' organizations from Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland have developed policy guidelines on which they intend to orient their projects, activities and campaigns in the coming years. The designing of a decent working environment is the ultimate objective.

Already during the visit of the company GEBERIT, during talks with the management and the works council it became clear that: "At GEBERIT, the main goal is essentially a continuous technical development of the automation of production and no industrial revolution", states Managing Director Helmut Schwarzl. The global GEBERIT Group is the European market leader for sanitary products and employs over 12,000 people in more than 40 countries. Dr. Stefan Perini from the institute AFIIPL in Italy explained it as follows: "The first time the term industry 4.0 was mentioned was in 2011 at the Hannover Fair within the framework of the Action Plan for High-Tech Strategy 2020 made by the German government". With this program, the federal government in Germany strives for a paradigm shift in the production system in order to, through a targeted industrial policy, drive the upswing of its own economy; that is, a marketing strategy. In the last few years, plans for a new industrial boom have also been set up in the USA and France. "A little later than in Germany, in September 2016, the Italian government announced the turnaround to industry 4.0, with its Plan Industria 4.0," says Perini.

The so-called fourth industrial revolution is a process of change which is much more difficult than the previous technical revolutions. The latter were triggered by quite specific innovations, for example by the steam engine, the assembly line work or the computer. The new paradigm of industry 4.0, on the other hand, requires a whole series of innovative and interconnected technologies. Key features of the intelligent factory, which encompasses industry 4.0, include big data, robotization, the Internet of Things, systems for linking the physical and the virtual world (also known as Cyber-Physical Systems-CPS), cloud computing, artificial intelligence, independent transport systems, flexible and tailor-made productions and, above all, the employment of highly qualified specialists who can address the new technologies and the corresponding challenges. Now, complex working environments are created in which machines communicate with one another and work side by side with people and learn new things from them.

Contrary to the assertion of a neutral technologisation and automation, Dr Michael Schäfers, head of the KAB Germany’s principle committee, explained his thesis: "The expected technological developments will be accompanied by an already emerging transformation of property, power relations, the acquisition of the added value of labour and value added by deep cuts in corporate structures. However, their direction and consequences are only apparent in outlines."

The impact of digitization on the labour market is difficult to assess. According to a recent estimate of the World Economic Forum, a total of 7.1 million jobs will be lost by 2020 and 2.1 million professional jobs will come into existence. In 2013, Frey and Osborne published a very worrying study on the same topic. The authors examined more than 700 occupations on the American labour market and concluded that every second job would run the risk of being automated. According to the two authors, around 47% of jobs in the US could be swept away by new technologies over the course of 10 to 20 years.

Andreas Gjecaj, Managing Director of the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (ÖGB), presented his thesis on the future of work in the future. In it he demands, among other things: "The Internet must not degenerate into a dimension of our life and workplace, where neither right nor law are effective". In the working world, completely new working relationships arise, for example in the so-called “crowdworking”. There, work orders are placed on platforms on the Internet and in a worldwide competition people offer their performances. All labour regulations are missing, there is no minimum wage, no employee protection, and the result of this new day-o-day labouring is hourly wages of $ 1.50 or the equivalent of a pizza at the end of a working day. Without binding regulations, which also apply to all Internet platforms, an impoverishment of broad sections of the population arises; especially young people are cheated out of an enrolment into formal employment.

"Youth must not become the forgotten loser of digitization," demanded Gjecaj. Too often, young people end up in precarious working conditions and have to take the rap for deficits in the education system. The education and training of young people will be given greater significance by digitization.

"Bridges to the future need a viable foundation in the present," states Gjecaj. Especially in times of radical changes, the balance between old and new appears to be vital. The foundation of the present must also ensure a fair distribution of the reduced amount of work, as well as a distribution of the wealth gains achieved through digitization rather than keep focusing power and money in the hands of a few. Even in the digital age, fair and practicable regulations for the protection of employees, as well as employment and social insurance safeguards are needed. But building on this solid foundation, the view must be open and free for a bridge into the future, for a society in which machines may perform the majority of work.


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