The digital world of work: flexible, anywhere, autonomous

The future of work in the digital age was the focus of the international symposium "The digital world of work: flexible, anywhere, autonomous" organized by the Bolzano-based Arbeiter-, Freizeit- und Bildungsverein (AFB) and the European Centre for Workers' Questions (EZA) in Bressanone/Brixen (Italy) on 3rd and 4th May 2018. Over 70 participants from South Tyrol/Italy, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Serbia attended the conference, which was supported by the European Union.

Experts pointed out that the combination of technological progress coupled with the digital networking of planning and production processes, the Internet and the creation and use of large databases has initiated an epochal change in the labour market. Industry 4.0 is an umbrella term for this evolution, as well as the promise – and the hype – of new opportunities to develop entrepreneurial know how and creativity with outstanding profit perspectives. Production and value chains are being completely rearranged by technical progress and digitization. The Internet enables the networked use of huge databases and the development of new service offerings, which are already outshining traditional operators, for instance in the retail, transport, music and media sectors - or in the book trade. Regardless of the sector we look at - industrial manufacturing, banking, tourism or agriculture, transport, trade, education, personal services or public administration - digitization will play a central role across industries in the future. However, the conference also discussed the risks of dismantling the labour market’s traditional pillars with regard to labour, tax and social law while eroding the industrial relations system at a time when there are is hardly any concrete recipe for "good work" in the digital age. A factory tour of the façade builder Frener & Reifer GmbH in Brixen offered the participants the opportunity to get an impression of how digitisation is implemented at company level - in planning offices and manufacturing departments.

In principle, all population groups can benefit from the digitisation of work. Production processes can be accelerated and made more flexible; activities can be automated and in many cases performed in location-independent manufacturing and service networks. Digital procedures simplify complex planning processes and work organization. Robots relieve humans of dangerous, monotonous or cumbersome activities during production and artificial intelligence can take over control in certain operational procedures. Companies are key players in shaping change in the workplace. Their concept of organisational management and their view of human beings will determine which and how many planning and design steps will be completely automatised and what role employees will play. Automation can replace people in many activities. Studies have shown that this could lead to a polarisation of professional qualifications, with a small group of highly specialized technicians and managers at one extreme, and a large number of employees at the other who, due to either a lack of appropriate qualifications or the rapid obsolescence of specialist knowledge, might be incapable of actively contributing to the design of automated work processes or could be employed only for auxiliary work. The shrinking of the middle qualification segment is likely to affect skilled workers in manufacturing and trades, with corresponding disadvantages in terms of career development opportunities and wage levels, as well as in terms of social status.

However, automation can also be used as a tool to help the workforce perform a wide variety of tasks. In fact, many work processes cannot be fully automated and certain competencies must necessarily be contributed by employees. It follows that automation is not the sole and only decisive factor to have an impact on the organization of work processes. To rely entirely on automation entails the risk that production processes get decoupled from employees’ skills and competencies, to the point that the latter lose their ability to repair malfunctions in the machines. A man must have the necessary knowledge and experience to control machines. In the best case scenario, the operator must therefore be able to control the machine or at least be enabled to carry out the correct interventions in the automated work process according to the situation. In this respect, digitisation is also a major challenge for the education system. Given the high speed of technological progress, new concepts need to be developed on how to impart the necessary knowledge and practical handling skills to students, so that they are prepared for the future labour market. Central aspects here are automation's ability to promote learning and to adapt to the qualifications of employees. Suitable adjustments to Industry 4.0 can be made based on values, either in the tradition of the Enlightenment or drawing inspiration from the numerous ecclesiastical encyclicals on work ethics. What both have in common is something that today’s society urgently needs: solidarity approaches that go beyond the mere monetisation of certain areas of life.

The digitisation process already underway inside companies is bringing about an epochal transformation in the traditional labour market, affecting its tax, organisational, wage and social foundations. Therefore, managing this change has also legal and collective agreement implications. Since labour market, tax and social laws differ across countries, new questions arise as a result of more flexible capital flows generated by internationally active corporate networks: Where do digital companies have to pay taxes? How is that enforceable? How are data security and data protection guaranteed? In the case of companies operating internationally, it is particularly difficult to enforce existing employee rights. Large players such as Amazon, Google and Facebook only contribute very marginal amounts to tax revenues in the individual European countries where they operate. From an economic point of view, since the 1980s massive neoliberal concepts have been encouraged which regard labour costs as a hurdle to efficiency and trade union participation as a way to impair freedom in decision-making; politically they aim at dismantling the welfare state.

Trade unions are calling for legal and collective framework agreements for the digital labour market that do not lessen current protection standards in terms of pay, working time regulation, further training, co-determination and social protection. Unfortunately, this is often the case, as evidenced by the practices of large corporations - but also of new companies at local level - which disregard existing regulations without any willingness to compromise. The wave of deregulation in labour law has brought about new employment contracts with lower protection standards. On the other hand, new models of work organisation pose the question of which form of cooperation can be classified as paid (wage-based) employment. The new conflict of interests between capital and labour makes it clear that rules are urgently needed to avoid massive social distortions. Experts unanimously agree that it is not yet foreseeable which interests will prevail when defining the rules for the digital workplace.

As emphasised by Andreas Gjecaj, General Secretary of the Christian Trade Union Group (FCG) in the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), digitisation marks a turning point both at work and in our everyday lives. Trade unions are taking up the challenge and intensifying the international exchange of information on these issues. At European level, the European pillar of social rights proclaimed in 2017 represents an important anchoring point for efforts to integrate social justice in the flexible, location-independent and (partially) automated workplace of the future. The EU’s role as guarantor of democracy and social dialogue is currently undermined by disagreement on key strategic issues among Member States and by populism and supporters of local sovereignty. Nevertheless, according to Vincenzo Colla, General Secretary of CGIL, Italy's largest trade union confederation, the EU remains the most important institution that can foster the further development of a European model to reconcile interests. Legal and collective framework agreements are fundamental to cope with this new structural change. This is the guiding principle for political action and trade union work - at national, local and company level. We must not wait passively for a major regulatory turnaround. Many small steps taken by trade unions and companies in cooperation with the public sector will contribute to shape the work-based society of the future, which must be respectful of the dignity of workers and of work itself.