The digital world of work's opportunities and risks for women

On the 14th and 15th September 2018, 55 participants from South Tyrol/Italy, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Belgium and Serbia met at the international conference of the IPEO platform (international platform for equal opportunities) organised by AFB in cooperation with the European Centre for Workers' Questions (EZA) and with the support of the European Union to discuss about "The digital world of work's opportunities and risks for women". The seminar was part of the EZA project-coordination about “Working and living in a digitized world”.

Presentations delivered by experts shed light on the profound changes in daily life, production and work induced by the combination of Internet, big data and high-tech production processes. Modern sensor technology, 3D printers and robots are already in widespread use, yet over the next 10 to 15 years further developments are expected in the field of digitisation and artificial intelligence, which will translate into an even greater penetration of technology into all economic sectors and areas of life. Digitisation involves fierce competition between regions, countries and continents: Asian countries are at the top of the world rankings and Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland are leading in Europe. Competition for location -specific advantages occurs on a global scale and does not fit within the legal and cultural framework that Europe uses to debate suitable control instruments.

Digitisation has gained the public spotlight - amid the hyped promises of economic salvation. In concrete terms, however, the economic advantages of a more flexible labour market are countered by risks in many fields. In real life, having a “physical workplace” replaced by a laptop often leads to increased pressure to perform and longer working hours. Safety requirements associated with the traditional workplace - such as compliance with ergonomic and occupational safety standards - become the responsibility of the individual worker, who is now conceived as self-employed. Workers end up being always connected and reachable – with boundaries between their work and private life becoming blurred. In many cases, work is offered via platforms, but only in the form of precarious employment contracts with poor social protection. The absence of personal contacts and of a trade union representative in the workplace causes a feeling of isolation. Extensive digital control over work activities is unsettling and a number of open questions remain when it comes to personal data protection.

Since the traditional labour market is lagging behind in the implementation of equal opportunities, participants at the conference unanimously called for the inclusion of gender equality in the regulations for digital work from the outset: discussion on the matter should be fostered in all relevant fora. Support should be given to girls for access to technical training and technical professions. Discriminatory gender stereotypes that cause women to stay away from the digital labour market or hinder their careers must be resolved in working life on a daily basis. In general, family-friendly regulations are needed. Among other things, it is important to help women keep their digital skills updated when they take time off work for family reasons. As numerous examples of platform economy and the use of atypical employment contracts show, the neoliberal focus on cost optimisation is undermining current standards with regard to wages, protection against dismissal, overtime pay and pension entitlements. For women, the lack of suitable social protection is a major concern, because it limits their employment opportunities.

Millennials have quickly become familiar with the new technical aids. Digital natives are growing up in a world where the daily use of digital devices is a matter of fact. Nevertheless, women are less present than men in education and professions for which the so-called STEM competences (science, technology, engineering, and math) are crucial. Social gender stereotypes have a major influence on the women’s choice of education and occupation. In terms of personnel recruitment, rewards for female employees, women’s further training and career opportunities, framework conditions at work often implement patterns and working time arrangements that do not pay sufficient attention to the need for flexibility which women have due to family obligations. In this respect, a new course must be set in the digital working world of the future. Vocational guidance plays an important role in encouraging young women to choose education and career that match their skills and abilities, breaking free from gender stereotypes. Successful women in technical professions and management positions can serve as role models in this respect. More men, at the same time, might be willing to take time off work to look after their family and share family responsibilities.

Certain key competences, which are particularly in demand in the digital professions, seem to be more common among women than among men – and that is good news: cooperativeness, the ability to perform several tasks simultaneously and problem-solving skills are among the women’s strengths. Synergy between schools and the labour market, the willingness to engage in lifelong learning and new learning offers targeted at specific groups are the building blocks for training protocols that suit future job requirements and can maintain and support employability. Digital education programmes during periods of parental leave should therefore become a standard part of any company’s continuing training arrangements and could be included in corporate labour agreements or supplement national or regional labour agreements. In general, ICT literacy and further training should be specifically promoted as part of the professional development of older workers who are employed in sectors where digitisation could lead to job cuts or whose employability would in any case be reduced in the event of restructuring processes.

Unlike the USA, the EU shows a greater awareness of the social aspects of digitisation and social dialogue is a core feature of EU’s political and regulatory architecture. To date, however, no agreement has been reached between the European social partners on the regulation of the digital economy, the wage policy or the social law aspects of digital work. In 2016, the President of the EU Commission Jean Claude Juncker launched a promising policy document entitled "European Pillar of Social Rights" which is still awaiting concrete implementation to date. The preparatory work for a corresponding EU directive requires the willingness and commitment of all parties involved to engage in social dialogue. Europe needs a uniform, comprehensive regulatory framework for the future digital labour market; the aim is to create a common basis for the management of digitisation processes, which embodies European values and can inform collective agreements between the social partners. In the Member States, trade unions have been weakened by the deregulation of the labour market and the relaxation of collective bargaining obligations: they have lost their influence in shaping employment conditions and lack the power to persuade the employers' associations to speed up negotiations on the digital economy at European level. Therefore, social forces should work together to achieve a social charter for the future of employment.

Implementation is a huge challenge: a shift from the now prevalent neoliberal approach is needed to re-establish a European social model. In seeking consensus between social partners, attention must be paid both to the internal convergence of the Member States and to the global constellation of markets and other influencing factors. New rules are needed to determine how to deal with, among other things, employers' corporate and social responsibility, employment vs. self-employment, job placement via digital platforms, the use of digital tools for recording and monitoring work, data protection and security. The aim is to provide guidance for national legislation, which can benefit parties involved in collective bargaining, ensuring legal certainty while allowing some room for manoeuvre for territorial, corporate and individual agreements.

For the trade unions, the digitisation process is both a challenge and a great opportunity: the leitmotif "good work and good life" is a good starting point for linking social justice to ecological sustainability. Ethical values remain at the heart of the new vision for the society of the future: human beings and their dignity as social subjects and workers are to be placed at the centre. Typical of Western Europe, this vision of society – which is rooted in the Christian doctrine as well as in Humanism and the Enlightenment - needs committed advocates in the trade unions and in the employees’ and civil society organizations. The call for a digital labour market with a social face gives new stimuli to the trade unions in their role as representatives of social interests. Provided that women's concerns are adequately taken into account, there could be a quantum leap in the female component of employee organisations.