Impact of digitalisation on social dialogue and collective bargaining
The European Commission defines social dialogue as ‘discussions, consultations, negotiations and joint actions involving organisations representing the two sides of industry (employers and workers)’. Social dialogue is the dominant feature of collective industrial relations in Europe and, in its various forms in the Member States, social dialogue is a component of democratic government and of economic and social modernisation. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), social dialogue includes all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy. It can consist of bipartite relationship between labour and management (or trade unions and employer organisations), or a tripartite process with the government as an official party to the dialogue. It can be interprofessional or sectoral and take place at national, regional, company or workplace level.
Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation between trade unions and employers regarding the terms and conditions of the employment of employees, and the rights and responsibilities of trade unions. It is a process of rule-making, leading to joint regulation.
Numerous provisions in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and European labour law aim to strengthen social dialogue and the role of the social partners at European, national, sectoral, local and company levels.
The digital transformation of the economy has considerable implications for working conditions and therefore for collective employment and workplace relations. At the same time, industrial relations systems contribute to shaping the deployment of digitalisation in the economy and the labour market. Digital strategies such as Industry 4.0 tend to be developed with the involvement of social partners, as experienced, for example, in Austria, Germany, Italy, Sweden and several other EU Member States.
Social dialogue involving workers affected by digitalisation is key for creating new, more appropriate agendas for negotiation and identifying new areas for employer–worker cooperation.
The more disruptive the technology, the greater the impact it has on the labour force and on working conditions, and thus on social dialogue.
Managing the impact of technological change and the effects of digitalisation is already on the cross-industry and sectoral policy agendas of employer organisations and trade unions, at both EU and national levels.
Collective bargaining aids in effectively managing transition periods, supporting companies and sectors to restructure and adapt accordingly, and dealing with the risks of increasing wage inequality and polarisation in working conditions.
Despite recent innovative experiences, social dialogue and collective bargaining in the platform sector are still at a very early stage of development. Social partners, and particularly trade unions, are making efforts to reach agreements addressing social protection and other standards on working conditions. The use of digital means and platforms could allow social partners themselves to better organise their activities and increase their influence, as well as monitor and extend their capabilities and increase their membership.
A new wave of collective agreements on managing the digital transformation and the digital organisation of work through changes in working time flexibility, reskilling and upskilling, and improvements in work–life balance and working conditions – such as health and safety, including reducing psychosocial risks – is leading the way in revising existing structures of collective bargaining.
It is likely that the increasing dispersal of workers as a result of remote working will render unionisation less easy to organise.
Over the past few years, social dialogue initiatives have been established at national level (for example, Industry 4.0 in Germany and Platform Industry 4.0 in Austria), and cross-industry and sectoral social dialogue addressing the digital transition has also taken place. These initiatives, which are usually based on structural change approaches, are aimed at implementing comprehensive strategies and accompanying policies for navigating the digital transition and the adoption of technologies. Most of these approaches entail both tripartite and bipartite social dialogue, as it is widely acknowledged that trade unions and employer organisations must engage in managing change, particularly in the area of anticipating skills requirements and implementing upskilling and reskilling measures.
The social partners are playing an increasing role in addressing the effects of the digital transformation at both macroeconomic and microeconomic levels. The former refers to discussions on industrial policies, employment and labour market reforms, skills policies, social protection and pensions, and tax reforms. The latter concerns the reorganisation of work, the impact on jobs and working conditions, labour and social costs resulting from restructuring at company level, and the negotiation of productivity gains, if these occur.
Data from the European Company Survey (ECS) 2019 show that, while 54% of establishments classified as ‘highly digitalised’ have official staff representation, this is the case for only 47% of establishments with ‘limited digitalisation’ (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Existence of official employee representation by digitalisation intensity of establishments, EU27 and the UK, 2019 (%)
In line with this, the ECS 2019 suggests that slightly more highly digitised establishments than other types of establishments involve employee representatives, while more establishments with limited digitalisation capabilities consult employees directly (Figure 2). However, higher levels of digitalisation seem to be related to a wider range of channels for informing staff, and particularly a higher share of establishments that use digital channels such as newsletters, online discussion boards and social media.
Figure 2: Employee involvement practices by digitalisation intensity of establishments, EU27 and the UK, 2019 (%)
A slightly higher share of managers in highly digitalised establishments than in the other types of establishments report involving staff and their representatives in management decisions (Figure 3). The differences are most pronounced for training and skills development and working time arrangements (more than 10 percentage points).
Figure 3: Employee involvement in management decisions by digitalisation intensity of establishments, EU27 and the UK, 2019 (%)
The area of skills and training strategies and policies has been a priority and social partners have engaged in social dialogue in this area since the very beginning of the digital transformation. Digitalisation has also resulted in new areas for discussion, for example new emerging risks stemming from automation and digitisation, and the data protection and surveillance of workers in the workplace and outside company premises.
Finally, new forms of employment such as platform work are associated with other controversial issues that should be addressed through social dialogue.
An example of the importance of social dialogue for addressing the implications of digital change is the European social partners’ autonomous framework agreement on digitalisation, which was signed by the EU social partners (BusinessEurope, ETUC, CEEP and SMEunited) in 2020. The agreement recognises that digitalisation requires specific approaches:
in a way that is tailored to their specific circumstances. Since the gains are not automatic, we need to adapt our labour markets, education and training, and social protection systems to make sure the transition is mutually beneficial for employers and workers.
(BusinessEurope et al, 2020)
This requires a focus on the anticipation of change and, among other things, the delivery of skills needed by workers and enterprises, work organisation and working conditions, work–life balance and the accessibility of technology, including infrastructure, across economic sectors and regions.
Collective bargaining and digitalisation
In general, digital transformation as a process has not yet been fully integrated in collective bargaining. Instead, the effects of technological transformation at company and workplace levels are being addressed step by step through collective bargaining, mainly through a combination of working time measures and skills policies.
Examples of the use of collective bargaining for managing the impact of digitalisation are more frequent and explicit in the financial sector. In the Italian banking sector, the collective agreement (covering 280,000 workers) includes the creation of a joint national committee tasked with analysing the impact of new forms of technology and digitalisation with the aim of identifying the skills that will be required in the future. In the same sector in Germany (covering almost 200,000 workers), the collective agreement set up specific programmes for assessing the readiness of workers for the digital transition. Similarly, the collective agreement in the banking sector in Belgium has established pathways for workers whose jobs may be under threat because of the digital transformation, providing them with training and coaching through a digital platform.
In other economic sectors, collective agreements in large companies such as TIM (formerly Telecom Italia) or Unilever (Industry 4.0 agreement) are aimed at deploying large-scale training opportunities and requalification programmes for all staff.
The collective agreements in the Italian electric power sector (2019; 50,000 workers) and the German chemicals sector (2019; 580,000 workers) address flexible working arrangements, driven mainly or at least partly by digitalisation. In the latter sector, as well as in the Belgian finance (2019; 23,000 employees) and banking (2019; 51,000 employees) sectors, collective agreements deal with telework and mobile work associated with the digital transformation.
- The impact of technological change on work organisation, productivity, employment, skills and working conditions, to a greater or lesser extent, triggers constructive social dialogue
- A cooperative approach by social partners, with an anticipatory and non-deterministic view on technological change and its impacts on jobs and working conditions, is developed
- Working conditions are improved through collective bargaining at company and sectoral levels
- The combination of workplace cooperation and consultation over the introduction of digital technology and collective bargaining can help ensure that the benefits and progress made, even beyond impacts on working conditions, are also shared with workers
- Trade unions develop new approaches to worker representation and social dialogue at workplace level
Tripartite social dialogue has increasingly recognised the importance of digitalisation over the past few years. It has become part of employers’ and trade unions’ agendas, resulting in an increase in the number of national tripartite agreements on digitalisation. This joint approach has also been adopted at sectoral level between the social partners themselves.
In addition to the cross-industry autonomous framework agreement on digitalisation signed by the EU social partners in 2020, the social partners have signed various other declarations and joint statements over the past few years and implemented other instruments outlining pathways to assist businesses and employees in adapting to technological developments.
The impact of digitalisation provides an opportunity to rethink skills policies at company and sector levels. Furthermore, digitalisation provides an opportunity to discuss labour market regulations and institutions. In this regard, some EU social partners, such as the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) and UNI Europa in the EU telecoms sector (December 2020), Ceemet and IndustriALL (November 2020) in the metal, engineering and technology sectors, and the Association of Mutual Insurers and Insurance Cooperatives in Europe (AMICE), the European Federation of Insurance Intermediaries (BIPAR), Insurance Europe and UNI Europa (February 2019) in the insurance sector have signed diverse cooperation agreements within the framework of the social sectoral dialogue, leading the way for other sectors and stakeholders.
Digitalisation processes also enlarge the scope and ways in which human resources and employment relations at company level are viewed by managers and worker representatives. They provide a new arena for discussion and may revitalise social dialogue. Multinational companies operating at the global level are leading the way in this regard. Examples of initiatives in this area include the Solvay global framework agreement on digital transformation (April 2020), which has a wider scope than the EU; the UniCredit joint statement on remote work (October 2020), which sets out guidelines, principles and future minimum quality standards for remote work in all countries where it operates; and the ENGIE joint declaration on digital technology (November 2019), which sets out a frame of reference for all employees on providing them with the support needed to adapt their skills in alignment with business objectives.
Overall, the impact of digitalisation on collective employment relations depends on the nature and degree of deployment of each technology and the sector or economic activity considered. Social dialogue plays a central role in managing the digital transformation, which also requires strong social partners to reach agreements to ensure that technological change benefits both employers and workers.
- The social dialogue agenda is focused more on traditional topics and priorities (business as usual)
- Collective bargaining lags behind digitalisation as it usually reacts slowly to structural change
- Labour demand caused by digital transformation tends to favour more highly skilled profiles, for which the level of unionisation is lower
- There is a lack of involvement of employee representatives in the early stages of digital transformation
Social dialogue is challenged when digitalisation impacts employment levels or the job profiles within sectors. Potential job losses or changes in production and work organisation shape collective employment relations, requiring worker representatives and trade unions to adapt to the changing work environment and workforce. Ultimately, this requires responses that may deviate from traditional approaches. This is even more challenging when considering that the impact of digitalisation takes place in a wider context of change, and especially higher levels of competition in certain business activities, for example the automobile, finance and banking, and telecom sectors. These changes in production and service provision require significant changes in work organisation, working conditions and skills and have an impact on collective employment relations.
There are some structural risks that may prevent social dialogue and collective bargaining from finding compromises and regulating the implications of the digital transformation. For example, employers and trade unions consider wage setting and working time as priorities in their negotiation agendas, without properly evaluating the effects of the implementation of technological change as a significant element in collective bargaining. Generally, the introduction of technology in production processes is treated rather vaguely and included in general statements in collective agreements. This is because the deployment of digitalisation (the introduction of new equipment, machinery and work-related and organisational processes, for example) in production is traditionally considered a discretionary power of employers – the owners of the means of production or productive property – and it is assumed that issues associated with this should not be subject to negotiation as such, unless they have substantial implications for technical adaptation (reskilling), work organisation and working time (work shifts), and aspects related to privacy in the workplace. Furthermore, technological change and innovation may be introduced gradually in the form of small incremental projects, which may overlap with worker representatives’ lack of training and vision about the medium- and long-term implications for working conditions and changes in job tasks.
As implementing digitalisation is not a neutral choice, social dialogue at different levels is finding institutionalised ways of reorganising collective employment relations by anticipating and managing the effects of digitalisation on work relations.
Nevertheless, digitalisation as such is only slowly becoming a subject of social dialogue. At the time of writing (Q2 2021), collective agreements at both sectoral and company levels in most EU countries have only touched on the importance of technological change and the digital transformation, committing the signatory parties to continue discussing this challenge and, above all, promote training to facilitate the technological adaptation of employees.
The effects of digitalisation are dealt with in collective bargaining or in sectoral agreements through arrangements mainly related to training, working time, work organisation, work–life balance, management of redundancies, or safety and health at work. In this regard, social partners are mainly tackling the impacts of production and job changes driven by digitalisation through traditional tools and are looking for ways to embed the changes in work processes and working conditions.
Automation is one of the ‘vectors of change’ identified as part of the broader notion of ‘digitalisation’ in Eurofound’s conceptual framework. It is the replacement of human input, in full or in part, by machine or software input. Advanced robotics, both for services and for manufacturing, is grouped with autonomous vehicles under the automation vector, since the ultimate aim of its application is to substitute machine for human input.
Automated work processes are well established in some sectors in the EU and already have high levels of technological maturity. Therefore, EU companies and worker representatives, at least in the manufacturing sector, have significant experience in dealing with transformative automation, and lessons learned should be applied to the current technological transition.
The implementation and effects of automation technologies, and notably robotisation in the manufacturing sector, have been addressed in social dialogue through standardised negotiations on wages, skills policies and working conditions.
Automation blurs company boundaries and creates more complex organisational forms of production, both of which impact collective employment relations. The adoption and deployment of automated technologies in the workplace results in changes to work organisation and the work environment. These changes should be addressed in the context of workers’ information rights and should thus be the subject of social dialogue in the workplace. Worker representatives have the right to be informed and consulted in a timely manner – especially in cases of existing co-determination rights – about organisational and technological innovations applied in the workplace. This is a consequence of national and EU legislation implemented in response to these changes and may impact strategic choices about production systems or activities, affecting the overall organisation of work or the need for reskilling.
Automation technologies have the potential to transform the tasks performed within jobs and therefore the content of the jobs themselves and the competencies needed to perform them. This in turn has further implications, for instance in terms of the skills required. As a result, skills development and training programmes (reskilling and upskilling) are becoming the most significant outcomes of automation discussions and arrangements in collective bargaining, as they are intrinsically linked to workforce reorganisation and changes in production. In addition to wage-related negotiations, training programmes linked to digital employability have become a key theme in collective bargaining. Working time has also become central to collective bargaining and is intrinsically linked to automation and the reorganisation and updating of workforce skills and competencies. There are examples of collective agreements at sector (for example, the financial, information and communications technology (ICT), and automotive sectors) and company levels that implement a mix of flexible working time and remote working and smart working, among other things. This may imply the introduction of more flexibility along with an individual right to training (for example, individual learning accounts).
The impacts of automated technologies on the workplace have inspired collective bargaining, leading to adaptations to work organisation, working time (shifts), employment (apprenticeships), skills programmes and working conditions (health and safety). Leading the way in terms of managing the effects of automation are carmakers in Germany such as Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, Audi and Bosch, and automotive parts manufacturers such as Continental, which have introduced ambitious remote working programmes for hundreds of thousands of employees (in which, for instance, robots can be managed remotely). Similarly, SAP’s 22,000 employees in Germany have been granted the right to work wherever they want in the country.
Other examples of such company agreements include those at Renault (2020), on the transformation of technical engineering and tertiary skills in the automotive industry; at Inditex (2020), addressing the digital transition and restructuring of the group’s shops in the retail and logistics sectors; at Unilever (2019) in Italy; and at ING-DiBa (2019; 4,000 workers) and Postbank (a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank) in Germany, addressing skills and working time.
- Social dialogue can shape the ways in which automation affects work organisation, workforce skills, working conditions and health and safety at work, and the monitoring of data protection
- At workplace level, the introduction of automated processes can be monitored and negotiated by worker representatives and management to ensure that both employers and workers benefit from their introduction
- In agreement with worker representatives, continuous data management processes and monitoring of automated production can improve working conditions and health and safety in the workplace
The adoption of automated technologies requires employers and employees to be adequately informed about the specificities and potential dangers of working with machines and robotics, which enhances worker representatives’ rights to be duly informed and consulted at the time of implementation.
Overall, automation shows a tendency towards a decrease in manual tasks and an increase in the need for intellectual skills. In this regard, social dialogue and collective bargaining represent key components of the adoption of advanced robotics in manufacturing, which may drive the demand for jobs involving tasks such as engaging with, supervising and developing automation technologies. This shift towards monitoring, programming and machine control tasks, which is considered to result in better job quality, also requires upskilling of the current workforce. In addition, social dialogue and collective bargaining can address uncertainties related to the effects of the deployment of automated machines and robotics on occupational health and safety.
In the past, social partners in the EU have demonstrated their capacity and ability to manage the introduction of automation technologies (for example, in the automotive sector) and, based on this, social dialogue and collective bargaining remain key assets in the adoption of the current generation of automated processes, combined with other technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). For example, the management of human–robot interactions unveils the complexities related to people management in this type of work environment and the changes experienced in supervision functions and tasks that are performed. Social dialogue provides an opportunity to properly debate these complexities at workplace level and should allow managers and worker representatives to develop a better understanding of how automation technologies impact the social and qualitative aspects of the overall work system.
Collective bargaining can play a crucial role in organising and redistributing the efficiency gains in sectors in which automation (for example, robotics) enables new functions or drastically changes processes. Furthermore, collective bargaining is crucial for determining how robots are integrated with work systems, existing hierarchies and management practices, as well as meeting risk requirements and safety norms.
The combination of automation and digitisation in the automotive manufacturing sector provides an example of how social dialogue and collective bargaining are key institutions and practices that contribute to absorbing the impacts of the digital transformation. The manufacture of fully electric vehicles leads to increases in the use of electronics and information technology (IT), the use of fewer mechanical components, new and dedicated production lines and further automation. As a result, this leads to significant changes in work organisation, and particularly IT-related tasks and skills, which constitute suitable areas for negotiation (along with wages) between employers and worker representatives.
- There are potentially negative effects on collective worker representation, as the reduction in jobs because of the increasing use of machines may disrupt the minimum thresholds required for representation
- Fully or partially individualised wage setting and/or supplementary remuneration undermines collective bargaining
Introducing automated processes poses significant challenges for the governance of collective employment relations, as it entails changes in the tasks required to perform production processes, which ultimately tends to trigger modifications to occupational structures.
In combination with developments related to work organisation – for example increases in remote working – the changes resulting from automation may compromise the minimum threshold for consultation rights and thus the ability of employee representatives to engage in negotiations. Overall, these tendencies will diminish opportunities for workers to organise into trade unions and, consequently, reduce collective bargaining rights and workers’ participation in the decision-making processes that affect working conditions.
Social dialogue at various levels is well placed to deal with issues related to the implementation of automation, such as job losses, reskilling and changes to working conditions. It can support companies and sectors in adapting to technological advances in automation.
A growing number of collective agreements at sectoral and company levels show how the uptake of technology and automation can be addressed through policies on working time, skills and working conditions.
Digitisation is one of the vectors of change forming part of digitalisation in Eurofound’s conceptual framework. It refers to the process through which aspects of the physical world are rendered into data and virtual models, and vice versa. Three main technologies fall under this vector of change, namely 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and IoT.
Digitisation technologies such as IoT, 3D printing and AR/VR have the potential to change the nature of work and, consequently, to impact worker representation and social dialogue frameworks. The implementation of these technologies may incentivise businesses to redefine their production and distribution processes and to streamline their organisational structure, with significant effects on labour relations. As this cluster of technologies is still in the early stages of development, the size and nature of their impact on both collective employment relations and individual job quality are yet to be fully determined.
Worker representatives should be consulted about the introduction of digitised technologies in the workplace, as these technologies enable more complex organisational forms of production, potentially resulting in radical changes to work organisation. Furthermore, the way in which each technology is applied and interacts with other technologies and workers shapes not only work and production processes but also working conditions such as task content and autonomy.
Equally, these technologies may result in the outsourcing of specific tasks, and employers may demand flexible forms of employment, even if digitalisation does not necessarily entail new forms of employment contracts.
In general, the most relevant impact of digitised technologies relates to changes to the workplace. Digitised technologies increase flexibility in work organisation and tend to blur the boundaries of space and time with regard to working conditions, which raises essential questions that should be addressed by social dialogue in the workplace. Workplaces are becoming more varied, and are likely to become more so because of the implementation of remote working in response to the COVID-19 crisis, while working time patterns are at stake as a result of increased use of ICT-based mobile devices. These changes need to be adapted to – and new regulations developed through social dialogue and collective bargaining – in order to foster the positive elements of new work arrangements and offset any negative consequences.
Furthermore, these technologies may contribute to growing polarisation and wage inequality between highly skilled and low-skilled workers, which are typically addressed through collective bargaining.
- An enabling environment is introduced to shape the way in which remote working is carried out, including establishing new arrangements in the degree of autonomy and discretion to perform tasks, as well as improving work–life balance
- The intensification of intellectual tasks provides opportunities for supporting the upskilling and reskilling of workers, to provide the skills needed to analyse data flows from production processes (internet of things) or from people (wearables)
- There are potential opportunities to improve health and safety at work, as digitised technologies tend to reduce physical risk
As digitisation technologies may result in radical changes to the workplace and lead to significantly higher levels of remote working, social dialogue and collective bargaining are expected to play a key role in shaping and structuring the way in which work is carried out, including establishing new arrangements on the degree of autonomy of workers and their discretion to perform tasks. The supervision and monitoring of highly digitised processes that may be conducted in workplaces outside employers’ premises require new or renegotiated work organisation and working time schemes, allowing improvements in work–life balance.
The adoption of digitisation technologies normally implies changes in skills requirements because of the intensification of intellectual tasks. Social dialogue provides an unbeatable opportunity to lead this transformation, in which ICT and data skills are essential for analysing data flows – either from production processes (IoT) or from people (wearables) – and for supporting the upskilling and reskilling of workers to mitigate the digital skills gap in the workforce.
Social dialogue in the workplace, and particularly occupational risk assessment, provides an enabling environment, allowing the potential opportunities brought by digitisation to be implemented to improve health and safety at work. It has been reported that these technologies tend to reduce physical risks either by transferring a number of operations to the online or virtual space (IoT and AR/VR) or by providing effective ways of carrying out risk-free training (VR). VR may also improve employee interactions and their empathy and perceptiveness, theoretically improving mental health. Wearables can also have a risk-reducing effect, for example workers’ physical or workspace conditions can be monitored to alert them about potential dangers.
- Trade unions face increasing difficulties in representing and organising geographically dispersed workers
- Outsourcing and subcontracting by companies may make unionisation more difficult
As digitisation tends to result in more complex organisational forms of production, it may strongly impact worker representation and trade union representativeness at workplace level. By blurring company boundaries and eliminating the need for shared physical premises, digitised forms of work may disrupt trade union solidarity, making collective representation more difficult.
The massive and rapid adoption of telework in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of digitised technologies, exposing gaps in the legislation dealing with this work arrangement that social dialogue and collective bargaining are well placed to deal with. Furthermore, being constantly and remotely connected brings challenges in terms of work organisation and can blur the boundaries between work time and leisure time. In the absence of legislation or in addition to it, social dialogue at the level of employers and collective bargaining provide an opportunity to establish practical arrangements for a worker to exercise their right to disconnect and for the implementation of that right by their employer. In the few countries that currently have legislation on the right to disconnect, the number of collective agreements reached and actions taken at company level increased during the pandemic.
Most digitisation technologies are at an early stage of deployment, particularly with regard to their potential capacity to be combined with each other and with other technologies, such as AI, giving rise to new or greater capabilities. There is therefore not enough evidence to determine the extent to which they may change work organisation and collective employment relations.
Social dialogue and collective bargaining have a key role to play in the deployment of these technologies, as the technologies have implications for work organisation and production processes. For example, efficiency gains and cost reductions may, in turn, lead to changes in task and resource distribution, which are key areas for negotiations between employers and worker representatives.
The disruptive capacity of digitised technologies in terms of the organisation of workplaces, notably if they are combined with AI and other automated capabilities, may result in fewer opportunities for workers to organise into trade unions. Negotiating rights may be reduced and workers may be more likely to be blocked by businesses from participating in decision-making.
Although there is still some uncertainty about the extent of the changes caused by digitisation, skills gaps, reskilling and training can be addressed by collective bargaining, as can the potential increase in health and safety risks, both psychosocial and physical, resulting, for example, from the use of new materials in 3D printing. Furthermore, workers’ intellectual property rights, in respect of their designs, should also be addressed.
Platform work is a form of employment in which organisations or individuals use an online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve problems or provide services in exchange for payment.
Platform work has been extensively analysed over the past few years. The specific characteristics of platform work and the unclear employment status of platform workers challenge the ability of platform workers to have their interests represented. As platform workers are widely considered to be self-employed, at least in some Member States, traditional trade unions do not have a mandate to represent them, and competition regulation may not permit them to organise through other means. In this regard, the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work recommends ‘the development of an international governance system for digital labour platforms that sets and requires platforms (and their clients) to respect certain minimum rights and protections’.
At the time of writing (Q2 2021), the European Commission had launched a formal consultation with social partners, in accordance with Article 154(2) of the TFEU, requesting their views on the possible direction of EU action to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms active in the EU. As the employment status of platform workers remains uncertain from a regulatory perspective across Member States, this consultation is aimed at exploring the possibility of launching a legislative initiative.
Platform economy actors are at an early stage of engaging in different forms of social dialogue and collective bargaining. Initiatives on organising and mobilising platform workers are emerging in several Member States, driven by trade unions or grassroots organisations.
Collective representation of platform workers
Overall, platform work challenges traditional collective employment relations based on worker representation. As most platform-based businesses consider themselves to be intermediaries, the workforce is considered to consist of self-employed and freelance workers instead of employees. As a result, labour law is not applied to a number of rights. These include some labour rights and social protection and workers’ rights to set up collective representation structures and bodies within a company and in the workplace. This obstacle prevents platform workers from accessing information and having consultation rights and participating in collective bargaining, as, under competition law, self-employed people are classed as undertakings and are therefore not allowed to conclude collective agreements concerning tariffs, in accordance with Article 101 of the TFEU.
Unionisation, or simply organising themselves to effectively exercise their collective voice, is not an easy task for platform workers. The main issue relates to the plurality and diversity of platform businesses. The geographical dispersion of workers, who are not present in a single workplace especially in the case of online platform work, also represents a strong limitation. Another factor constraining the capacity for organising and achieving an effective representation of platform workers is the heterogeneity of the work performed, as platform workers may be working through various platforms in the same or different sectors. In addition, the different motivations for carrying out platform work indicate a lack of shared identity, which undermines the sense of acting collectively: while work on digital labour platforms is the main source of income for many workers, the main motivating factor for other workers is to complement their existing income or to have the flexibility to work from home or at any time.
Despite the challenges outlined above, platform workers’ collectives have been flourishing over the past few years. A variety of strategies have been used. A number of well-established trade unions in the EU have made progress in organising platform workers, in some cases by developing new strategies to recruit them as members and using specialised structures and changing their statutes to integrate them. These strategies often come in the context of trade unions enlarging the scope of protection for self-employed workers, including other categories of workers such as freelancers and non-standard workers (those operating in the ‘grey zone’ between dependent employment and self-employment). Examples are the General Union of Workers (UGT) in Spain, the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL), the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), Unionen in Sweden, and IG Metall and ver.di in Germany.
Trade union strategies cover a range of activities, from providing digital advice and information, such as that available on the ‘Tu Respuesta Sindical YA’ website (UGT), the Belgian General Labour Federation (FGTB) platform and the Sindacato-Networkers platform (UIL) – which normally associate platform work with precarious work – to opening separate trade union sections or incorporating platform workers into existing structures. Other strategies in Austria (Union of Private Sector Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists, GPA-djp) and Germany (YouTubers Union, supported by IG Metall) focus on platform workers specifically.
Interestingly, following the amendment of the Labour Code in 2016, self-employed workers in France can join any trade union and have the right to undertake collective action, even without the involvement or support of a trade union. This also applies to platform workers, who have explicitly been given the right to undertake collective action, to form or join a union and to have their collective interests defended.
Equally important, trade unions have deployed awareness campaigns among existing non-platform affiliate members to underline the importance of protecting this group of workers and to highlight the risk of platform practices such as algorithm management being applied to traditional businesses.
The involvement of trade unions in organising platform workers (as part of the group of self-employed contingent workers, that is, workers hired on a per-project basis) has been incentivised by the emergence of forms of unionisation that are eager to represent workers who mainly carry out on-location platform work.
These new forms of unionisation have brought dynamic recruitment practices and rank-and-file engagement, which diverge from the more conventional strategies of established trade unions. An example is the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which claims to represent mainly low-paid migrant workers, such as outsourced cleaners and security guards, workers in the ‘gig economy’, such as bicycle couriers and Uber drivers, and foster care workers. This trade union was successful in a UK Supreme Court ruling, which stated that the 70,000 Uber drivers in the UK are entitled to workers’ rights and a guaranteed minimum wage from the moment they log on to the Uber app.
Other types of grassroots organisations willing to establish social dialogue include guilds such as the Collectif des livreurs autonomes de Paris, the Deliverance Milano in Italy and the Riders’ Union in the Netherlands.
Some workers have established platform cooperatives, which they own and manage themselves, such as the food delivery services FoodFairies and Kolymar-2, both located in Berlin, and Mensakas, a unionised platform cooperative of delivery workers and couriers in Barcelona. These cooperatives are worker led and operate according to different models from those used by existing shareholder-driven platforms such as Glovo or Deliveroo.
The cross-border nature of some platforms has triggered attempts at transnational unionisation. One example is FairCrowdWork, a joint union partnership project set up by the German trade union IG Metall and the Austrian Chamber of Labour and Austrian Trade Union Confederation (ÖGB). This cross-border trade union initiative includes a website aimed at supporting fair working conditions for platform work. It provides information and advice to platform workers and, in particular, ratings of working conditions on different online platforms based on surveys of workers.
There are few examples of social dialogue practices aimed at providing worker representation in the platform economy sector. There is some evidence of platform workers achieving institutional representation. For example, an agreement establishing an SE (European Company) works council at Delivery Hero (which owns Foodora) in 2018 was signed between the German Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG), the Italian Federation of Workers in the Trade, Tourism and Service Sectors, (FILCAMS–CGIL) and the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT). This agreement followed the establishment of a Foodora works council, elected by bike couriers, in Vienna and Cologne in 2017 and another one in Hamburg in 2018.
Collective bargaining in digital platforms
Classifying platform workers as self-employed, in accordance with EU competition law, hinders their right to collective bargaining, which is a fundamental right of all workers aimed at the improvement of working conditions (including the setting of remuneration) and social protection.
As a result, collective bargaining agreements in the platform economy are even less frequent than social dialogue practices. One widely cited example is the collective agreement signed in 2018 between the Danish trade union 3F and Hilfr.dk, a platform providing cleaning services in private homes. The same trade union and the Danish Chamber of Commerce reached a national sectoral agreement in February 2021 covering delivery riders, who will be guaranteed to receive information about their terms of employment, a base hourly wage, minimum and maximum working times and other benefits. Another example of a collective agreement is that signed by the food delivery company Sgnam-Mymenu in Italy.
Collective bargaining tools have been used to cover platform work through extension mechanisms, as in the case of Bzzt, the transport platform, which covered its drivers under the taxi agreement signed by the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union. The similarities between platform work and temporary agency work have been used in Sweden to cover both workers carrying out work through the low-skilled tasks platform Gigstr and Instajobs workers.
Growing discourse concerning the working conditions of on-location platform workers has led to collective and industrial action, especially in relation to transport and food delivery platforms. The first mass strike took place in London in 2016 (Deliveroo), followed by others in the same food delivery sector in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
Existing structures of employer representation
In some EU Member States, the structure and strategies of established employer organisations have been challenged by businesses in the platform economy. While in some cases there may be cooperation and shared objectives, it is not unusual to find business approaches that are not fully aligned, as the new digital platform businesses are not on the same level playing field in terms of fair competition and their intermediary business models rely on avoiding national regulatory fiscal and labour law measures. Therefore, employer organisations in some countries now coexist with platform business organisations, such as the German Crowdsourcing Association (DCV), the Estonian Sharing Economy Association, Sharing Economy UK (SEUK), SharingEspaña (SHES) and SODIA in Greece.
- New forms of worker representation emerge
Social dialogue can help platform workers achieve access to transparent, non-discriminatory and ethical algorithms. This is particularly relevant to help overcome the opacity of certain aspects of platform work, such as algorithmic management and the asymmetry of information, that such remote and fragmented work organisation may entail.
As far as the working conditions of individual platform workers are affected, social dialogue can play a role in negotiations between platform owners and worker representatives. Traditional areas addressed by social dialogue and collective bargaining, such as pay, working time, work–life balance, health and safety risks, and overall social protection, should be subject to negotiations. Such negotiations should also include the management of algorithms used to organise and monitor workers’ performance and potentially also used for surveillance purposes.
As discussed earlier, the classification of platform workers as self-employed means that they have limited access to collective representation and minimum rights to information and consultation. Social dialogue and collective bargaining provide tools to achieve fair working conditions and employment relations according to EU labour standards.
There are relatively few examples of social dialogue in platform work. One good example of how social dialogue can help to regulate employment relations is found in Spain. In March 2021, the Spanish government and the social partners reached an agreement on the labour rights of those workers engaged in the digital platform delivery of any consumer product or merchandise. The agreement sets out the presumption of employment for delivery workers (couriers and riders), entitling them to full workers’ rights, including access to social protection. Both the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organizations (CEOE) and the Spanish Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CEPYME) support the agreement, which has been rejected by the Association of On-Demand Service Platforms (composed of platforms such as Deliveroo, Stuart, Glovo and Uber Eats). The agreement will become a legislative initiative.
- Labour relations are individualised and fragmented
- Union solidarity is disrupted
- Collective labour rights and worker representation are reduced
The lack of clarification around the employment status of many platform workers challenges social dialogue in the platform economy; most platform workers do not have the status of employees and consequently have limited access to collective representation and action. Despite recent developments promoted by supreme courts and the work carried out by new and established trade unions to organise platform workers, social dialogue and collective bargaining structures are not yet fully developed in the EU platform economy. Only workers engaged in on-location platforms have been able to negotiate better working conditions in some companies and in some countries. However, it is also the case that some platform workers show little interest in getting involved in trade unions or collective action.
Promoting social dialogue in the platform sector provides a useful way to shape the development of platform work in accordance with EU social standards. This requires a proactive approach by EU and national governments to support the engagement of platform businesses and worker representation, without ruling out legislative action.
The representation of platform workers is difficult because of their unclear employment status, a general lack of common identity, the absence of a common, fixed workplace and the volatility of this form of employment. Platform workers should be supported to organise and establish collective representation. This requires public policies on and legislative support for social dialogue, including collective bargaining, addressing the clarification of the employment relationship, at least in some types of platform work, particularly on-location platform work.
Activities of traditional representative bodies, newly emerging representative bodies and workers’ initiatives are still limited, and they face challenges over how best to mobilise and represent workers. In many countries, trade unions are endeavouring to organise platform workers and provide a collective voice for them: they support court cases, organise information campaigns, draft codes of conduct, and facilitate negotiations between workers and platforms, which has resulted in the first collective agreements. In parallel, new types of institutions have been set up to provide information to platform workers and assist them in improving their working conditions.
Furthermore, less institutionalised worker initiatives are being established; generally, these are sector or task specific and mainly serve to provide information and foster exchanges among platform workers.
Social partners, and particularly trade unions, should continue to establish channels for platform worker representation that enhance platform workers’ engagement within existing structures. The use of digital means is essential for communicating and organising these highly dispersed and ‘workplace-less’ workers and enabling various forms of collective action.
Overall, the organisation of platform businesses is limited; in several countries, however, specific bodies representing platforms have been established to promote this new business model and establish standards through codes of conduct.
|Related policy pointers||Related research digests|
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