What are the opportunities and challenges for the social partners in the digital age?

Main messages
  • Social partners have an important role in labour protection and restructuring related to digitalisation
  • The need to ensure a collective voice for workers in the digital age is being challenged
  • New ways of organising workers may be required

Social partners have an important role in labour protection and restructuring related to digitalisation

The introduction or increased use of (advanced) technologies in the workplace in many cases involves some form of restructuring.

Business expansion may take place if new, digitally enabled products or services are developed and offered on the market. In most cases, this will result in additional jobs in the company because of the need for workers matching new occupational profiles to design, produce and promote the new products or services and/or because of the need to expand existing capacities to provide the goods and services as a result of high market demand.

  • Internal restructuring can take place to reorganise, for example, the company’s structure, work organisation or workflows. This can occur with or without a numerical employment impact, but it is likely to affect staff in terms of aspects such as the tasks they are assigned, how they are expected to carry out their duties, how and by whom they are managed and monitored (including potentially through technical solutions such as artificial intelligence (AI)), teamwork within the unit and with colleagues in other units and cooperation with external stakeholders, working time schedules and duration, and training.
  • Offshoring or outsourcing can be triggered by digitally enabled workflows that no longer require that all steps in the production or service provision process are conducted in one place. Digitisation technologies and the platform economy in particular facilitate global virtual supply chains. This can result in job loss or decreased employment quality (for example, reduced contractual stability) in developed countries and in job creation in less developed countries, owing to price differentials.
  • On the other hand, some reshoring may result from digitalisation. Research has found, for example, indications that technologies such as 3D printing and the internet of things (IoT) are likely to result in production closer to consumption. It can be expected that this will result in job creation in countries and regions where the products and services in question are in increasing demand.
  • Business closures are likely to emerge among companies that do not succeed in mastering the digital transition. Inevitably, this will result in job losses.

In Europe, social partners traditionally have an important role in restructuring, to ensure that the employment and working conditions of affected workers are maintained. Available research shows that digitalisation offers a wide range of opportunities to workers but also poses risks to them, highlighting the important role of social partners at national, sectoral and workplace levels in engaging in discussions and negotiations to jointly identify ‘win–win’ solutions that benefit both employers and workers.

Policy pointers

  • The established structures and processes for informing and consulting staff and their representatives should be maintained and, if necessary, further developed in relation to digitalisation. Workers and their representatives should be involved in decisions about introducing technology into the workplace, as well as in its design and in the monitoring of its implementation. Information on the characteristics and mechanisms of digital solutions, as well as the purposes for which they are to be deployed, needs to be transparently shared with workers. The European social partners’ framework agreement on digitalisation has set such discussions in motion at national and local levels. Measures and actions to be negotiated by the social partners at national, regional or company level may bring forward solutions that highlight the positive use of digitisation technologies in ways that respect human dignity and employees’ fundamental rights.
  • 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. Before the introduction of digitalisation measures, social partners should jointly discuss design options and their potential impacts on workers and the labour market. In this regard, further capacity building may be needed to ensure that the required quantitative and qualitative resources are available to the parties involved. Policy could support this financially (for example, through training and skills development support for social partners) or through the facilitation of exchange and mutual learning (for example, organising cross-company, cross-regional, cross-sectoral or cross-national workshops focusing on the particularities of social dialogue and collective bargaining in the digital age).
  • Social dialogue and collective bargaining at national, sectoral and workplace levels should pay increasing attention to elements of employment and working conditions in the digital age that may challenge traditional standards. Examples are the type of employment contract (non-standard); working time (for example, long or short hours, on-call duties, expected availability and the right to disconnect, unsocial working time schedules, lack of work–life balance); data generation, ownership and use; algorithmic task assignment, management and surveillance; and training and skills development. Across Europe, some approaches to managing these issues through social dialogue are already being implemented. They could be analysed as regards their specific characteristics and effectiveness. Lessons learned could then be disseminated among social partners.
  • In the event of downsizing or closure of businesses due to digitalisation, social partners should be involved in finding solutions and designing packages for workers affected by job loss. Traditional tools such as social plans could be reviewed to ensure that they are fit for purpose in the digital age and, if necessary, adapted and modernised.

The need to ensure a collective voice for workers in the digital age is being challenged

Some digitally enabled business models and types of work organisation challenge traditional pathways for worker representation. The reasons for this include the following.

  • Fragmentation of work, for example in relation to some automation technologies or the platform economy, makes it difficult for worker representatives to mobilise and organise workers, as their employment relationships become less stable. A high turnover of workers and scattered working time schedules make identifying affected workers and their needs difficult.
  • Online and remote working, as facilitated by digitisation and in some parts of the platform economy, mean that there is no single workplace that can act as a space for worker representatives to gather and address workers.
  • The combination of the two above-mentioned aspects makes it even more difficult for worker representatives to gain a mandate if it results in a global division of tasks, with workers spread over different countries and engaged in digitally organised workflows.
  • Some digitalisation technologies render the employment status of workers unclear; as of mid-2021 this was most widely discussed in relation to the platform economy. If this results in a situation in which workers are considered self-employed, organising and representing them will not be easily reconciled with competition law in many EU countries.
  • If information is lacking about the mechanisms on which digital solutions are based, including AI and algorithms, this limits the ability of worker representatives to assess whether they are properly deployed or misused to the disadvantage of the workers.

Policy pointers

  • Worker representatives could be supported in identifying and testing approaches to organising and representing fragmented and remote workforces, including across borders. As, following the COVID-19 pandemic and the related surge in telework, it is expected that in the years to come remote and hybrid workplaces will become more common, it is important to explore options, opportunities and challenges related to providing a collective voice to workers in such workplaces. Further research on this issue may help to collect information on practices that are already being applied, assess their effectiveness, identify good practices and disseminate them among worker representatives across EU countries.
  • Clarification of the employment status of workers in the digital age is key to ensuring that those in a dependent employment relationship gain access to representation, and thus a more level playing field, in negotiations with employers. Furthermore, even those who are genuinely self-employed could be granted rights to access collective representation and bargaining, particularly if there is strong dependency and/or a substantial power imbalance in the employment relationship. As of mid-2021, discussions on revising competition law to make this happen were ongAs the generation and use of data are key features of the digital age, worker representatives need to have information about what employee data are collected in what ways and for what purpose and about the impact of this data use on workers. Furthermore, they should be enabled to monitor the implementation of agreed digital solutions, including AI and algorithms. This requires that employers provide the required information to workers and their representatives such that they can effectively work with it. In this regard, policy could support workers and their representatives through training and skills development initiatives to gain, update and further develop the skills required to understand and assess digital solutions, including AI and algorithms.

New ways of organising workers may be required

Some of the above-mentioned issues indicate that there is a need to explore new ways of organising workers, in addition to further enhancing and developing the traditional institutions and processes. This may be particularly true with regard to digitally enabled business models and forms of work organisation that differ substantially from traditional approaches and thus disrupt the established systems and mechanisms of social dialogue, industrial relations and collective bargaining. As of mid-2021, the most prominent example of this was the platform economy. This is where, alongside the important efforts of traditional trade unions and works councils, new types of actors (grassroots organisations) are emerging to mobilise and represent workers.

Policy pointers

  • The opportunities for and limitations of traditional worker representation in the digital age need to be further explored and emerging examples of new ways of organising workers collected, analysed and disseminated, to allow for an exchange of lessons learned among relevant actors. This could be done through existing instruments such as mutual learning exercises.
  • Cooperation between traditional and newly emerging actors could be supported by policy, to capitalise on the complementary advantages of the different types of actors (for example, expertise in collective bargaining versus easier access to workers). This could be done through awareness raising among both types of actors about the potential benefits of cooperation and through organising or supporting networking and ‘matchmaking’ events.


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