“We are living through a digital revolution,” believes Gunther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society. Digital services are transforming every sector of our lives.

At the final session of the second day of the ETUC-ETUI Conference on Shaping the New World of Work in Brussels, the Commissioner predicted that in the future, “anything that can be digitalised will be digitalised”, covering up to 90% of goods and services. “Those who have the data will have the power,” he added, so the EU must develop a comprehensive, unified response. “We cannot have 28 different laws for data protection in a single market.”

"Euroskeptic" tendencies

Gunther Oettinger urged trade unions to push their national governments to step up European cooperation, in defiance of current Eurosceptic tendencies, The EU needs a cross-border digital infrastructure with common standards. But he also highlighted challenges. The first is the digital divide: between men and women, young and old, even north and south within the EU. “Everybody needs basic digital competences,” he insisted, while IT specialists will have to fill some 160,000 new vacancies. More training is urgently needed at all levels.

“In the labour market there will be advantages and disadvantages,” he admitted. The 9 to 5 working day will disappear, so how should workers' right to a private life be protected? This will require both technical and legal measures. The Commissioner invited the social partners to take part in a European round table in September to address all these issues.

Nobody should be a “digital loser”

ETUC Deputy General Secretary Peter Scherrer was concerned that EU-wide “minimum standards” might be inadequate. “I don't care if rules are national or European, so long as they protect workers.” He urged the European Commission to “set the pace” on good working conditions, social security, pensions and health and safety, also covering self-employed people. Nobody should be a “digital loser.”

“We need a stronger EU that can manage this future work,” concluded ETUC President Rudy De Leeuw, producing high-skilled people with high levels of protection, and taking account of the specific needs of women and minority groups.

Those specific needs were highlighted in an earlier plenary session on working conditions, in which Jill Rubery from Manchester Business School drew parallels between women and crowdworkers. Women suffer a lack of visibility and are assumed to be dependent on men. Yet their work is conditioned by different life courses and different use of time. Despite high levels of education, their skills are undervalued by society. In the same way, crowdsourcing ignores skills, and is subsidised by the workers' own resources, generating subsistence wages.

Gender roles a factor

By blurring the distinction between work and private life, digital working perpetuates the idea that “women can do it all,” without challenging conventional gender roles. Patricia Vendramin, Co-Director of the FTU Research Centre in Belgium, rejected the view that digitalisation benefits women by offering low-paid, flexible jobs that facilitate multi-tasking. “There's a risk of growing inequality in the labour market,” she warned, between standard and atypical workers, high and low-paid, and high and low-skilled. Trade unions need to develop new collective structures for solidarity.

MEP Agnes Jongerius said EU legislation so far covers privacy and consumer protection but does not address employment in the digital economy. “Trade unions should demand a new set of regulations, and work together at international level to push legislators to act,” she urged.

The impact of digitalisation on employment was also the focus of one of the parallel plenary sessions earlier in the day. The Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Research Department, Raymond Torres, highlighted key trends. Globally, unemployment is rising and growth rates falling, as are investments and wages compared to productivity and profits. These developments are generating “worrying” levels of inequality, and slowing the growth of the middle classes especially in developing countries.

An innovative strategy is needed

Much new employment is in informal sectors, and characterized by low pay and lack of social protection. How does this relate to new technologies? Raymond Torres explained that digitalization brings job losses through new products, economies of scale and automated services, substituting precarious forms of work via online platforms. “We are entering a new world,” he declared. “So we have to use new technologies for our wellbeing, for humanity.” An innovative strategy is needed to create good jobs in the green economy, develop better regulation, and fill gaps in social protection. And labour organisations play a crucial role in protecting workers.

Dominique Méda, Director of the research institute IRISSO at the University of Paris-Dauphine, cautioned against taking alarmist predictions about the digital economy at face value. Some studies are controversial, and fail to take account of worker and consumer resistance. But if jobs are lost, one solution would be to redistribute the work available and reduce working time. Trade unions are key because union organisation is shown to improve quality of employment.

Is unemployment inevitable in a digital economy? “No!” declared Prakash Loungani from the IMF Research Department. He talked about an important “change of attitude” on the part of the IMF, which previously paid too little attention to the welfare of workers. This new “caring” approach means pushing equality higher up the policy agenda. Unemployment increases sickness and mortality and affects children's development, and markets fail to protect workers adequately. Collective bargaining and trust between the social partners are vital to an effective response. But one Greek member of the audience was sceptical about this new IMF “marketing”, given the troika's role in imposing austerity and destroying collective bargaining in Greece after the economic crisis.

Temp work increasing

Technological change is currently driving precariousness in the labour market, insisted Veronica Nilsson, ETUC Deputy General Secretary. Temporary and part-time contracts are multiplying. In Spain, one-quarter of new contracts are for one week or less. New technologies are coupled with constant pressure to be more competitive. “In the long run we cannot compete by cutting labour costs,” she protested. The ETUC is calling for recognition of employment relationships and regulation of online platforms, which should be barred from withholding a proportion of workers' pay. “It is crucial for trade unions to be able to organise these workers,” she concluded.

A second parallel plenary session examined the technologies driving the digital revolution, including robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and driverless cars. During the day a series of workshops focused on the specific challenges surrounding digitalisation. How can trade unions reach and organise isolated workers and independent contractors in the online economy? What the the psychosocial risks from new technologies that put workers under 24 hour pressure? How can the Circular Economy be introduced in a way that boosts economic development and environmental protection but does not destroy jobs? These sessions enabled participants to exchange knowledge and experiences, as well as concrete ideas for shaping the new world of work. In an additional open workshop session, small groups of participants took part in a lively brainstorming exchange of ideas about how to shape the emerging world of work.