Capacity building in the digital age: trade unions – democracy – social dialogue

From April 26th to April 29th 2018, the KGZE 2018 took place in Thessaloniki, Greece, on the topic of "Capacity building in the digital age: trade unions – democracy – social dialogue", organised by the ÖZA (Austrian Centre for Worker Education) with the support of the EZA and the European Union. The conference was part of the EZA project coordination "New Industrial Relations: Digitisation and trade union strategies". Over 70 representatives of workers' organisations from Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the FYR Macedonia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine participated in the conference.

The following conclusions were drawn at the conference:

ONE: The participants note that work 4.0 is not only a further development in technological progress, but opens up a new era. While technological progress used to be the main goal of facilitating work, the change from analogue to digital is changing our entire way of life. Working relationships, families, leisure time and social behaviour are changing. "The Internet has come to stay." (Eliza Vozemberg)

TWO: Our social network in Europe has been linked to the employment contract for around 150 years. This means that in both individual and collective agreements, employers and employees undertake to pay state taxes and social security contributions in addition to the wage for the work performed. In many European countries, the life risks of illness, old age (pensions), unemployment and accidents are borne jointly in a - often self-governed - system of social security. If the predictions about the loss of many jobs by robots and computers are correct, this social system would be massively endangered.

THREE: In the digital age, work is possible at any place and at any time in many areas; all that's needed is access to the Internet. However, this raises many new questions:

  • Who is the employer or employee?
  • Is there a legal employment relationship for every internet order? In which nation states will taxes and social security contributions be paid in the future if the work is distributed worldwide?
  • How can new forms of work (crowd-working, freelancers, etc.) be organised within a stable framework of labour law?

FOUR: The enormous amount of data available means that the protection of privacy can be viewed in a completely new light. Not only in the relationship between employers and employees, but also between states and individual citizens, but also for the protection of consumers, and against the one-sided use of data from economic interests, data protection must be massively improved. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves on the use of all personal data. The protection of this right should be placed under state supervision and form part of the rule of law.

FIVE: Trade unions must make greater use of the new technologies (Internet, digitisation,...) and develop completely new methods of organisation. On the one hand they can fight against targeted false information ("fake news") by providing high-quality information (e.g.: all current collective agreements). On the other hand, online channels can also be better used for campaigns or protests. In addition, the Internet offers member organizations completely new opportunities for participation (e.g.: corresponding changes in the organizational form, surveys, votes,...). Special attention must also be paid to the fact that digitisation is progressing at completely different speeds in the various sectors.

SIX: In 2018 it became public knowledge that votes and elections in recent years were probably massively influenced by social media channels. This represents a completely new threat to the democratic order in the EU. To counter this threat, states must invest both in the further expansion of infrastructure (fibre-optic cables, 5G network,...) and in completely new forms of education. According to forecasts, more than 50% of children starting school today will work in occupations that do not even exist today when they finish school. It also remains an important task for all democracies to ensure that all citizens have free access to the Internet.

SEVEN: Although in the age of digitisation, the "social dialogue" that has grown throughout Europe over the last 100 years is repeatedly questioned, the participants reaffirm the importance of this instrument. They are encouraged by the European Pillar of Social Rights (social pillar) proclaimed in November 2017. This calls for equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, social protection and social inclusion. Strengthening sustainable structures for social dialogue will continue to be indispensable in the future.