EZA MAGAZINE

Human dimension of the digital age: trade union commitment for effective responses to shape the future of work, prioritising social integrity and employment protection

The International conference “Human dimension of the digital age: trade union commitment for effective responses to shape the future of work, prioritising social integrity and employment protection” was held in Sofia, from the 5 to 7th July 2018. The event was organized by PODKREPA (Confederation of Labour PODKREPA) in the framework of EZA training program and was attended by more than 50 participants, including high-level officials, namely the Secretary general of National Labour Inspectorate, Directors from the National Employment Agency; the President of BICA – the biggest employers’ organization and trade unionists from Romania, France, Belgium, Lithuania. Germany and Bulgaria. The seminar was supported by the European Union.

Main goal of the conference was to exchange on the necessity to re-shape trade unions‘ policies and to implement innovative approach to face changes, that are nowadays taking place in the world of work – in short the expansion of new technologies. The second objective was to address the impending socio-economic gaps, helping workers in jobs that will likely disappear or be transformed. Other issues, which were also targeted were: the future of employment relationship, including career opportunities and sustainability; social security; health and safety; social inclusion; in-work training and algorithmic transparency.

During his introductory intervention, Veselin Mitov, EZA Vice-president & PODKREPA International Secretary, gave an overview of those objectives and of PODKREPA‘s involvement in one of the four key priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency to the Council of the EU – namely – the digital economy and skills for the future, with focus on young people. Leaders and experts of PODKREPA profited from all in the framework of the Presidency organized high level forums, to stress on the urgent necessity for modernization of educational and social security systems to shape the new employment practices; promoting trade union’ values of solidarity, decent life, social inclusion and non-discrimination. Later on, speakers outlined principal messages – few workers in Europe will remain untouched from digitalisation; the world of work will be different; freelance and short-term contracts become an usual practice - it’s time for activation – trade unions have to take the right actions and work together, to shape those trends in ways it works for all. As fourth industrial revolution is characterised by rapid development, trade unions should to re-shape their policies and structures, just to face them. Reforms in education, social security should to be initiated - including first legislative initiatives, then promotion and support of in-work training, social protection of new forms of employment. Every speaker underlined, that current regulatory frameworks should to be complemented with strong and balanced standards on safety, with adequate social and labour market policies to deal with those new threats, but opportunities.

The intervention of Sylvain Lefebvre, Deputy General Secretary of IndustriALL Europe presented the opinion of the larger professional trade union organization at European level. The opinion is analysing the effects of digital changes on working people. The general message it spreads is that 4th industrial revolution has an unpredictable impact on workers, on labour conditions and may provoke an unacceptable level of flexibility and uncertainty. It‘s clear, that digitalisation carries potential of replacing secure, well-paid jobs with temporary, low-paid employment. There is also a danger that employers will use the threat of automation to force down wages and working conditions. Trade unions in Europe are opposing to those trends and in a view of solidarity, fairness and dignity, are demanding relevant EU legislative environment and a renewed employment strategy, in order that all forms of work provide for decent income, working conditions and social protection, as well access to adequate benefits. In addition, social dialogue and collective bargaining should increase their importance and influence, as well all other instruments of workers’ participation, especially at branch and company levels. Because, only trade unions ate legitimate and structured organizations which serve to enhance democracy at work.

According to the program, during the second panel were presented EZA’s different seminars under the topic ‘New Working Relations: Digitalisation and Trade Unions Strategy’’ and presentations on the impact of new forms of work on the national labour force. National interventions identify the impacts of digitalisation in various aspects- underlining the need to be given to them most serious consideration and actions. Digitilisation of work is already an undeniable reality, however, there are many concerns about the relation between new forms of work and social and labour inequalities. Various problems were highlighted: legal provisions need to be enacted if we want to avoid collapse of social security systems and to guarantee equality in protection. From national interventions come obvious, that first: digitalisation is bringing both - job losses and opportunities. Second, for workers’ organizations the major problem is the impact on the labour market – jobs’ uncertainty and unpredictability. It is difficult to predict what jobs, tasks and skills will be potentially affected, both positively and negatively. Concerns here are that those are changes not only in jobs, but also in living models. Thus, future architecture of the labour market will probably be more fragmented, but also more interconnected. To try and make sense of this future landscape, trade unions should to consider all those impacts of technologies.

Five key issues were mapped-out during the round table: on how to re-shape political priorities and trade unions’ actions to respond to the new forms of employment, as follows:

-Concerns are obvious and related to jobs, which will change or even disappear, replaced by a robot system.

-Working environment is changing – giving place of the raise of risks /stress, isolation, particularly in cases of working place monitoring and surveillance or in discriminatory practices - like scoring or profiling.

-Relatively well-protected are workers with fixed term labour contracts and organised workers, not those who work via online platforms, the so-called ‘gig workers’ or the atypical workers. Those workers are facing specific risks such as job insecurity, discrimination, social isolation, overwork, unstructured work, uncertainty regarding legal responsibilities. For them, representation must be provided, so that their voice can be heard.

-Digitalisation is a game changer and is revolutionising the way we work and live. It will trigger the creation of new organisational models and lead to new and vastly different work protection models

-Given the multi-purpose nature of digitalisation, practically every area of human life will be affected, that is why developing a solid ethical framework is an absolute necessity. This framework must deal seriously with the fundamental citizens’ and workers’ rights, such as privacy, dignity and non-discrimination: standards which need to be upheld to this fast-changing world of work.

The expert from PODKREPA presented also a good practice – implemented project under Erasmus+ which consists an on-line consultation, mediation and arbitration for digital workers. The platform will be maintained by PODKREPA and it services will be very easy accessible, as well free of charges for users.

Final conclusion from the first conference day was that trade unions should react fast, multiplying efforts to guarantee that social dialogue and collective agreements are adapted to digital changes, and include clauses related to health &safety, social security and in-work training of employees in the new forms of work.

On the second day the attention was focused on the digital agenda of trade unions. Concerning work in the 21st century it was underlined that social partners have a key role to play - at company, sectoral, national and European (through European Social Dialogue committees) level.

As a fist tool, to do that was pointed the information and consultation procedure. It was stressed, that trade unions should profit better from that existing mechanism for adequate participation of workers in the redesign of their workplace architecture. Information and consultation has to become more intensive, established and consistent practice -that is particularly important for the new, atypical workers. In addition, ensuring rights to representation, information and consultation for new forms of work will require creativity and possibly even inventing a new approach tailored to their specific working environment. Second, trade unions are structures, closest to workplace, so they may help to identify and propose skills, that workers will need in the future. Third, acquiring technical skills, although necessary, will be not enough. In that respect, trade unions may be engaged to prepare/to train workers for jobs diversification and long-life learning.

From the individual interventions it came clear that it is necessary to propose a strategy aimed at improve trade unions’ capacity to shape digitalisation and to protect and promote workers’ rights in the context of the digital transformation. Collective bargaining and social dialogue as tools to address the vulnerability of workers in new forms of employment; uncertainties regarding job impacts, risks of job losses, risks of undemocratic decision-making processes and of lowering rights at work, among others are of paramount importance and need to be defend. Trade unions may not rely anymore only on achievements from the last decades, but also undertake an “offensive” agenda to grasp the challenge of digitalisation and promote the role and dignity of work in the 21st century.

To do that, trade unions have to react fast and to propose new solutions on how to bring collective bargaining into a new digitalised world of work. In such way trade unions will be able to cope with changing business models and new risks. Here, the need for strengthening collective rights at all level is obvious and overdue. That is the reason that we have to demand for clear definitions of the new forms of work; of their legal status, as well for more security, transparency as regard to digital transformation processes at the workplace, and at company level. In this new world, training or reskilling workers will not be enough. Workers will need to stay and to defend together in that profoundly different work environment. Those are strong arguments-we need to explain better trade unions’ values and the solidarity, to convince digital workers to choose trade unions – the only independent authority, defending employees’ interests.

Based on discussions and imputes, general conclusions were - fourth industrial revolution has created both great opportunities and risks. They threaten to further deepen the differences between workers and the only legal way for defining social standards is the collective protection and the international. Cooperation, provided by trade unions. In that respect, in the 21st century trade unions have to become more dynamic, to implement new methods and tools, but to stay on their traditional, very strong ground – solidarity and support between working people, no matter of the employment forms! The mix of globalisation, digital transformation, mass migration and the ageing population, all together cannot be handled in isolation – as genuine defenders of human rights, trade unions are putting all of them together in tandem in order to fully understand the multiple and complex consequences for the world of work.

In that sense, looking for “joined-up” responses to all those challenges, the conference was a great opportunity to enrich the debate on trade unions responses and initiatives to protect working rights, currently under pressure from both technical automation and the new trend towards employment.