Digital work, dignified work? The challenges of digitalization of the economy for workers' organizations

The international Seminar "Digital work, dignified work? The challenges of digitalization of the economy for workers' organizations" took place between 10 and 13 March 2022, in Sintra, Portugal. This event was organised by CFTL (Centro de Formação e Tempos Livres) in co-operation with BASE-Frente Unitária de Trabalhadores (BASE-FUT), with the support of EZA and funding from the European Union.

The seminar was attended by 55 representatives of workers' organisations from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Opening session

Paulo Caetano, president of CFTL, and Luc van den Brande, president of EZA, were present at the opening session. Paulo Caetano welcomed the participants, recalling the centrality that the concept of decent work continues to hold in the context of the technological transformations. Luc van den Brande recapitulated the changes in work brought about by digitalisation processes, stressing the utmost relevance of social dialogue as a way of steering these processes towards forms that safeguard and promote workers' dignity and quality of life. He also encouraged the workers' organisations in the EZA network to monitor this phenomenon and to remain alert to its consequences. Both speakers made a point of issuing a vehement condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the name of all participants.

Panel 1

Panel 1 was entitled "What are we talking about when we talk about digital labour? It was attended by Tiago Santos Pereira senior researcher from CoLABOR - Collaborative Lab for Work, Employment and Social Protection.

Tiago Santos Pereira discussed digitalisation as leading to the transformation of employment and not to its reduction. In addition, he warned against the risks of atomisation of workers and the reinforcement of labour market dualisation between technology-substitutable and non-technology-substitutable jobs. He underlined that digitalisation processes, while changing ways of organising work, do not have inevitable outcomes and should be open to negotiation and criticism.

Panel 2

Panel 2 was dedicated to the topic "Digital Economy: new social and environmental costs". It counted with the presence of Francisco Ferreira, from ZERO - Association of Sustainable Earth System, Joseph Touvenel, Confederation Secretary of CFTC - French Confederation of Christian Workers and Rafaela Aleixo, Member of the Student Climate Strike and of the Antimination Movement, in Beira Interior.

Francisco Ferreira focused on the problem of increased resource consumption that is inherent to digitalisation - in particular energy and rare minerals. Regarding energy, he drew attention to the importance of tax policies in encouraging the use of renewable energy sources and differentiation between sectors of activity. Regarding rare minerals, he discussed the importance of recycling and the issue of mining, mentioning the need for this to be very limited, with participation and strong regulation, ensuring that there are compensations to overcome the impacts resulting from the depletion of lodes and the obsolescence of technologies.

In turn, Joseph Thouvenel focused his intervention on the issue of economic and geopolitical vulnerability inherent to the growth of energy consumption, as well as the evolution of technology - in particular electronics.

Finally, Rafaela Aleixo started from a critique of an economy based on consumerism and the assumption of infinite growth to address the consequences of lithium mining in Portugal. She gave an account of the initiatives of local organisations to contest mining, their methods and forms of mobilisation of local populations used by them, as well as their results.

Study visit

As part of the seminar, the participants had the opportunity to visit the technological company BI4ALL - Data Analytics, located in Lisbon. The guided visit included visits to the work and leisure areas that the company built for its workers, ending with a question and answer session with the company's managers. The absence of any form of workers’ organization and the lack of trade union presence in the company were among the hottest topics of debate during the visit.

Panel 3

Panel 3 was dedicated to the topic "Decent work in a digital economy: threats and opportunities", and had as speakers: Nuno Boavida, researcher at CICS.Nova - Interdisciplinary Centre of Social Sciences of the New University of Lisbon; Paula Tejero - Technician of the Secretariat of Equality of USO - Unión Sindical Obrera, Spain; Rui Afeiteira, Director of Knowledge and Innovation of BI4ALL; and Marco Boleo, member of the Executive Council of MCL - Movement of Christian Workers of Italy.

Nuno Boavida presented a different angle on digitalisation issues, in particular the way in which the predominance of low wages and the lack of qualification of companies - acute problems in Portugal - end up being disincentives to the adoption of advanced technological means, with serious consequences at productivity level. She also alerted to the difficulties of the social partners in dealing with some emerging sectors.

Paula Tejero alerted to the issue of inequality in the distribution of working time - resulting in the coexistence of overworked workers with others deprived of work. She underlined that, although technological transformations may be inevitable, it may have different forms of regulation. Depending on these forms, we can either see an increase in exploitation and inequalities - including gender inequalities - or the reversal of advantages for workers - such as reductions in working time and hardship and increased wages.

Finally, Marco Boleo warned about the risk of increasing inequalities, resulting from the disproportionate reward of skills that are particularly valued by the labour market and the penalization of those that are not. In this sense, he argued that collective bargaining remains a fundamental tool in regulating the new economy.

Round table

The final round table of the seminar was dedicated to the topic "Digital Work: New forms of workers' organisation to respond to new forms of work organisation." It was attended by: Diane Seurrat, Vice-President of the CFTC (Paris) French Confederation of Christian Workers, Wolfgang Herrmann, from the Catholic Workers Pastoral of the Rottenburg-Stuttgart Diocese; Maria del Carmen Quintanilla, President of AFAMMER - Association of Families and Women in Rural Areas; Orlando Coutinho, Treasurer of FIDESTRA; and Alessandro Mini, ViceRector of International Relations - Abat Oliba CEU Barcelona University.

The roundtable focused on discussing experiences of organising and representing groups of workers who are particularly vulnerable to the most negative consequences of the twin processes of globalisation and digitalisation - including platform workers and rural migrant workers.

Key ideas

Digital work is based on the idea of networking and of information always available and being updated through interconnected technological devices. The multiple forms of digitalisation of work and its differentiated impacts on the various sectors of economic activity at local, national and global level have occupied several reflection forums. In fact, the digital economy presents a set of challenges for workers and their organisations: new forms of precariousness brought about by the platform economy, potential job destruction linked to automation and robotization, atomization of workers, blurring of boundaries between work and family life, the increase of control and surveillance at work and the risks to workers' privacy, environmental costs of resources and energy needed for the production and operation of digital equipment. 

This context reinforces the need for workers and their organisations to have more and better information on the reality of digitalisation and its impacts on workers. Only in this way will they be able to design effective strategies to minimise the risks arising from these transformations, as well as mobilise workers to achieve decent work.

Digitalisation comes at a time when we are facing several crises simultaneously: long trends like the demographic crisis, the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis but sudden shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In common, the problems associated with an economic model of permanent (infinite) growth that depletes resources, destroys ecosystems and threatens biodiversity and life on Earth, unevenly affecting more vulnerable populations exposed to social, economic and environmental risks. The latest emission commitments still fall short of what is needed to prevent an uncontrolled greenhouse effect. The war in Ukraine has exposed Europe's dependence on raw materials such as Russian oil and natural gas. And even renewable energy is not without costs and impacts on landscape, material use and ecosystem life.

Among the hidden costs of the digital economy and the so-called "green transition" are intensive energy consumption, increased extraction of ores such as cobalt and lithium, both fundamental to the construction and operation of electronic equipment. These costs are exported to the periphery as exploitation of territories and communities. Among the costs of mining are soil contamination, destruction of the landscape and natural habitats, excessive use of water and the social consequences arising from the temporary nature of the extractive activity. Added to this is the problem of planned obsolescence, which is a serious impediment to a true circular economy. 

Workers' organisations and, in particular, trade unions have an important role to play in voicing workers' demands and demanding greater legal regulation of new forms of work. At the same time, they have to adapt their forms of action and communication to reach the segments most vulnerable to the perverse effects of digitalisation. This is the case of platform workers - often immigrants - whose false status as self-employed workers atomises them and places them outside labour laws and social security. Mobilising these workers requires innovative organisational solutions, as the lack of a physical workplace and language barriers make it much more difficult to create solidarity networks between workers and bring workers' organisations together.

An important tool is to exert pressure on consumption decisions. It is important to use the various means at our disposal to draw consumers' attention to the forms of exploitation suffered by those who provide them with services - either in person, in workplaces and consumer environments, or at a distance, through internet campaigns. 

In this context, the gender inequalities that digitalisation sometimes exacerbates cannot be forgotten. It is essential to use tools such as equality plans that ensure that women and men are protected and know and put their rights into practice.  

Technological transformation is nothing new. The Industrial Revolution had already brought new ways of working and new forms of socialisation. The current digitalisation of the economy has brought an acceleration of the weight of technologies in our lives and jobs. Technologies are not and never have been neutral, and must remain a tool. A tool to make our lives easier, to enable access to knowledge and information and to reduce inequalities. 

The future is not set in stone and it is in our hands to make the digitalisation of the economy an opportunity to improve working conditions. Workers and their organisations have a key role to play in building decent work, in a society of freedom and equality, in a preserved and sustainable environment.