Understanding the world of work and of employment in terms of workers' quality of life and dignity

A seminar titled “Understanding the world of work and of employment in terms of workers' quality of life and dignity” took place from 7-10 June 2018 in Braga, Portugal; the seminar was initiated and organised by LOC/MTC (Liga Operária Católica - Movimento de Trabalhadores Cristãos). It was supported by EZA and the European Union, and was a part of EZA’s project coordination on the issue of “Quality of Work”.

D. Jorge Ortiga, the archbishop of Braga and primate of Portugal, who presided over the opening, discussed his concerns and emphasised that “each person has a right to work”. This right must go hand in hand with the quality of work, which however is no longer the case. The quality must be connected to the dignity of work, and the latter arises from the work. The life of a worker and his or her family must have dignity and must warrant education, culture and rest.” In the work environment, LOC/MTC must act with a perspective of faith. He concluded that we are faced with the challenge of interpreting the gospel in the world of work.

José Paixão, the national coordinator of LOC/MTC, said that the work situation continues to be one of the biggest problems faced by workers in Portugal. Unemployment is still high even though it has declined in the last two years; also, employment is precarious and there are not enough workplaces for young people. This reality, which has a negative impact on human dignity, continues to have far-reaching consequences for families. Many are losing their homes and are unable to provide their children with an adequate diet or access to education, culture, medical care and justice, which makes it all the more important and urgent to advocate for work with dignity, humanisation and a respect for workers.

Project Coordinator Pedro Estevão spoke about the importance of the EZA seminars that are held across Europe, and in particular about those that he supports and coordinates, such as this particular LOC/MTC seminar.

The following presenters participated in the next meetings: José Castro Caldas, economist and researcher at the Centre for Social Studies CES at the University of Coimbra; Wilfried Wienen, Manager of the European office of KAB Deutschland; António Brandão Guedes, Association and Cooperative Manager, expert in charge at the office for working conditions in Portugal; Charo Castello, psychologist and occupational/social educator from Spain.

At the first meeting, Castro Caldas looked back at the industrial revolutions and noted that employment crises always coincided with financial crises. The destruction of employment is represented in apocalyptic terms. Digital platforms are replacing employment through services, e.g. through independent small business operators. The lower the wages, the harder the work. Work takes on the status of a source of added value. Labour itself is transformed into a commodity. The aversion to work is normal; it originated during a time in the development of civilisation when humans were hunters. In conclusion, he states: In the 20th century, technologies led to the disappearance of various occupations rather than mass unemployment as a result of technology. Work must be more than the burden we shoulder in order to earn an income.

At the second meeting, Wilfried Wienen spoke about Industry 4.0 - The threat to work. He outlined what it means for people and societies with regard to the social dialogue, social cohesion and social developments in Europe. He explained that Industry 4.0 has already made its way into Portugal. The term was coined in Germany and is connected to a programme by the German government that established a support initiative for small and medium-sized businesses. This project was developed from the top down. Sensor technology, robotic technology, driverless cars - all of these are controlled by the internet. Data is processed and stored in Clouds that are nothing more than servers that are located in the US and through which everyone has access to citizens’ data. This is digital capitalism. Industry 4.0 is the revolution of capitalists.

In the third meeting, Brandão Guedes discussed the panorama of digital work and affirmed that work cannot be separated from our life. He noted that the large platforms have the ability to consolidate and lobby, and that they, in order to offer cheap products to customers, use the tactic of growing first and then regulating as little as possible afterwards. He outlined two possible ways: Inclusion or cohesion. - The digital economy that accompanies fantastic technological developments can lead to social inclusion that is characterised by more social equality among regions and genders, and democratic control over the technology.  Its gains (income) and free time can be beneficial for most people, whereby care must be taken to ensure that no one is excluded. Marginalisation and inequality. - The digital economy that is accompanied by robotics, along with artificial intelligence, can increase inequality, concentrate wealth, polarise the world of work, leave millions of workers without a dignified employment status and turn the latter into disposable objects. He concluded that labour organisations are still the most important tool for acknowledging the role of workers. The development of a balanced and humanised work environment will depend on their their ability to offer an inclusive design, to participate and to submit suggestions and demands, since there is no technological determinism.

The fourth meeting consisted of a round table which debated how the new forms of work in the respective countries are handled by the workers in that countries. Participants: Maria Martinez, ACO Spain; Ralf Linnartz, KAB Germany; Lidmila Nemcova, KAP Czech Republic; José Maria Costa, LOC/MTC Portugal. They said that normally, most workers are not aware of this reality, and that unfortunately many of them do not engage in civic involvement. Hence others are taking their place and are taking away the actual purpose of the economy and the technology by advocating profits for a few, while forgetting about and suppressing the individual. Policy-makers cannot let themselves be chained by an “economy that kills” and must be able to regulate the new forms of digital work and technology with common sense and honesty. In this context, human work must be highlighted and appreciated as a source of wealth, responsible consumption and environmental protection. In this sense, every worker is asked to get involved and look after the weakest, because by caring for others we also care for ourselves and are happy.

At the fifth meeting, Charo Castello spoke about the need to promote dignified work for everyone in Europe: We can never give up hope for dignified work, and we must be aware that we are working for human dignity. Solidarity is based on a sense of brotherliness and that one gives something of one's wealth to others. We must fight for equality but must also bear witness and act in solidarity even at the most marginalised levels of society, and we must make all examples visible to the community, so that everyone can see the importance of our work. We must recognise that what matters with respect to poverty is not charity but employment, and that dignified work must take priority in the fight against poverty. The churches (bishops, priests and laypersons) must view this priority as a mission, as an urgent task of evangelisation. It must also be on the political, economic, social and business agendas as the main instrument in the fight against poverty, marginalisation and exclusion.

The past battles and successes of our predecessors prove that dreams and utopia are always strong forces that encourage and drive change.

Seminar participants divided into three groups and visited the company “CASAIS”, which has 3,700 employees (700 in Portugal), as well as the newspaper “Diário do Minho” and its print shop (approximately 100 employees) and the Association of Unions of Braga. This was followed by an exchange of observations regarding technological developments and the information provided by those in charge, namely that they did not reduce workplaces as a result of the technologies but rather would be increasing workplaces, and that they are convinced that the new technologies would facilitate the work at their companies rather than lead to a reduction in the workforce.