The digital world of work – Industry 4.0: working conditions, requirements of new vocational skills, reform of education and training systems, employment trends and income distribution in society

A seminar about “The digital world of work – Industry 4.0: working conditions, requirements of new vocational skills, reform of education and training systems, employment trends and income distribution in society” took place in Leuven from 22 to 23 October 2018, organized by HIVA - Onderzoeksinstituut voor Arbeid en Samenleving, with the support of EZA and of the European Union. The seminar was part of the EZA project co-ordination about “Working and living in a digitized world”. 25 representatives of workers’ orgnizations from Albania, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine (as guests) and Germany participated in the seminar.

Topic of the seminar

Industry 4.0 or the fourth industrial revolution can be described as the current technological innovation phenomenon characterized by digitalization and automation in which workers are provided with, replaced by or supported by new technological and mostly digital tools, such as cyber physical systems and robotics. This new technology can be used to enlarge connectivity within organizations, to produce more cost efficiently and to increase productivity. However, it is expected that the implementation of industry 4.0 applications will have a disruptive impact on jobs and the organization of work, working conditions, future skills and training systems, employment, income distribution, social dialogue etc. In addition, these recent technological changes will create challenges as well as opportunities for employers, employees and social partners. The seminar was launched in order to address these issues and concerns, but also to exchange experiences and (good) practices between social partners from different countries.

The aim of the EZA seminar was to bring together research experts (Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Italy) with social partners from different EU-member and candidate states (Belgium, Albania, , Portugal, the Netherlands) in order to disseminate academic knowledge to social partners from different countries. The seminar was organized by KU Leuven-HIVA in collaboration with the European Centre for Workers’ Questions (EZA) and with the financial support of the European Union.

In total six research experts contributed to the seminar. On 22th of October Rainer Rissmayer, project coordinator EZA, (Germany) opened the seminar by setting the scene for the project "Working and Living in a Digitalised World". The second speaker was prof. dr. Steven Dhondt (the Netherlands) who presented the results of a study about the impacts of industry 4.0 on working conditions, employment and income distribution in the Netherlands. One of the key messages of this presentation was to look beyond the narrow technology perspective and to take the broader organizational and institutional perspective into account as well. The final speaker for Monday was phd student Ilaria Armaroli (Italy) about union involvement and the role trade unions play in industry 4.0. In this research trade union actions were linked to their institutional context and different trade union strategies were identified. On 23th of October dr. Tim Buyse (Belgium) opened with his presentation ‘Social partners on the digital fast track’ in which he focused on an international exchange of experiences, practices and know-how and the development of a structural network of social partners. After this dr. Hans Torvatn (Norway) and Fredy Peltzer (the Netherlands) provided insights in regional developments concerning industry 4.0 in Norway and the Netherlands. Norway is highly digitalized and workers have a positive attitude towards technological change. In the Netherlands they introduced field labs to experiment with digitization, but little progress is made with regard to workplace innovation, organization of work and there is no long-term plan of action.

Project results

The first discussion round (22th of October) dealt with the degree of implementation of industry 4.0 in the various EU-member states and the opportunities and challenges which the participants expected organizations, workers and social partners to be confronted with in the future. First the degree of implementation was discussed. This revealed significant differences between countries. Germany and Norway could be identified as pioneer countries as they both, especially Germany, have a higher degree of implementation and invested more in research projects concerning industry 4.0 than other countries in the discussion groups. Nevertheless, they indicated that the output of these projects is still limited. Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy could be seen as followers. Policy and investments are particularly technology driven, still there is little attention to organizational aspects. Albania, Ukraine and Portugal are newcomers to industry 4.0 as they indicated the low degree of implementation of digitalization and also few or no further projects or agreements could be identified concerning this topic.

Secondly, the discussion groups addressed the possible opportunities and challenges for workers, management, social partners and organizations in general. The following opportunities were pointed out: economic benefits (such as increase in productivity, cost efficiency and competitiveness) and its consequences for workers (extra bonus via fair share allocation), chance to improve safety, opportunity to develop new forms of participation, cooperation and social dialogue, higher job quality, decentralization of decision-making, increase in autonomy for workers, flexibility (can lead to better work-life balance, improvements in working time). Training and learning of new skills were mentioned several times as an opportunity (improving and developing new skills, life-long learning) but also as a risk factor (challenge to organize permanent training, aligning training with needs of workers, motivate and convince workers about the importance of training, acceleration or learning faster). Other challenges mentioned were safety risks, uncertainty about social dialogue and participation in industry 4.0, fragmentation of tasks, more control and surveillance, flexibility, job polarization. Multiple topics were seen as opportunities as well as challenges.

The second discussion round (23th of October) involved the role of social partners in industry 4.0. Here the focus group discussed that trade unions should be involved to ensure favorable working conditions, good quality of work and workers’ rights. engagement in industry 4.0 could be seen also as a new strategy for trade unions to attract new members. Participants further discussed the role of external partners as a strategy of participating and debating with the management. On the one hand external partners are an extra cost as they mention the same issues and challenges as workers. On the other hand, the involvement of external partners can facilitate dialogue as their job is to systematically aggregate the fragmented information they receive from workers and present the bigger picture to management. Next the discussion group went over some concrete examples of good practices of trade union involvement in innovation. In one case a small group of workers sat together with management to brainstorm about new ideas to improve the process. However, this was a one-time event as there was no structural follow-up. Another idea was to present trade unions’ suggestions as a business case to management. Other examples included an idea box, fair share allocation, IG Metall project ‘better not cheaper’ and the development of new technology agreements.


At the end of the seminar the focus group concluded some points. Firstly, the extent to which countries experiment, develop and implement new technological innovations differed greatly between the different countries present. For many participants the seminar was an opportunity to learn from the experiences of other EU-member states regarding industry 4.0. Secondly, trade unions realize the need to reinvent the instruments for social dialogue in order to participate in the industry 4.0 debate. Further trade unions also see an increase in deregulation, while they demand more norms and regulation. The seminar also served as a reality check; scientific and consultant related literature focusses mainly on good practices, whereas these are scarce in reality. Finally, it is crucial to look beyond the technology perspective to the organizational aspects of innovation and to involve workers in this organizational change. This employee participation and cooperation is important in order to motivate workers and to minimize resistance to change.