Is specific labour protection needed in the digital age?

Main messages
  • Need to ensure that no one is left behind
  • Need to ensure employment quality
  • Need to ensure good working conditions

Need to ensure that no one is left behind

While digitalisation offers new job opportunities, there is also a realistic risk that some workers will lose their jobs. For example, this could happen if whole occupations disappear, if task profiles within jobs change so much that incumbent employees are no longer equipped with the skills needed to do the job or if employers have to downscale, restructure or close as a result of market developments. To achieve the overall EU objective of inclusive labour markets, policy needs to ensure that no one is left behind, by targeting those affected by digitally driven job loss with support measures.

Policy pointers

  • For those workers affected by redundancies, the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund for Displaced Workers (EGF) can play a role in supporting re- and upskilling. The EGF is a long-standing instrument aimed at helping workers who lose their jobs as a result of restructuring to find new employment. The EGF has a budget of €210 million for the period 2021–2027; this can be used to fund 60–85% of the costs of projects targeting redundant workers. As experience shows that transitions in the labour market work best when there is no spell of unemployment, or when it is as short as possible, pathways for providing workers faced with the risk of unemployment with access to training before they actually become unemployed could in particular be further fostered.
  • For those (temporarily) leaving employment, safety nets need to be in place to ensure that they do not fall behind. This will entail a review of and, if necessary, adaptations to social protection and welfare systems, for example as regards their coverage of certain types of workers (such as those in non-standard employment relationships, which are expected to become more common as a result of the increased use of some types of technology) and their financial sustainability. The Council of the European Union recommendation on access to social protection for workers and the self-employed could be an important instrument in this context.
  • Social dialogue and collective bargaining can contribute to finding ‘win–win’ solutions that are acceptable to both employers and employees in the event of restructuring. Existing structures such as information and consultation procedures should be used in digitally driven restructuring; capacity building among the parties involved may be required to take into account the potential specific impacts of such restructuring. This could be done at sectoral, national or EU level, with the additional aim of fostering the exchange of experiences, lessons learned and good practices.

Need to ensure employment quality

Some digitalisation technologies are frequently discussed in relation to their impact on employment quality. Digitisation is expected to contribute to more widespread contractual instability owing to fragmentation and outsourcing of work. In mid-2021, public and policy debate on platform work was focused on the potential misclassification of the employment status of platform workers treated as self-employed.

Contract type is important, as it relates to the set of rights and entitlements of the worker, concerning, for example, social protection, earnings and working time. While allowing the parties involved to choose the contractual form most suitable for their individual situation, policy needs to ensure that digitalisation does not result in a race to the bottom when it comes to employment quality.

Policy pointers

  • Governments and social partners should monitor the development of forms of employment driven by various technologies in different sectors and countries. Early warning tools should be used to warn of tendencies towards decreasing employment quality and to explore their causes and the impacts on businesses and workers, as a basis for informed policymaking.
  • Policy should help workers to enter into the type of contract that is most suitable for them. This could include awareness raising and information provision on the characteristics and implications of different types of contract, as well as assistance in identifying and negotiating for their preferred solution. Bodies representing workers, such as trade unions and works councils, could play a particular role, including through social dialogue and collective bargaining, in giving workers a collective voice on the matter, thus creating a more level playing field.
  • Further emphasis should be placed on counteracting misclassification of employment status, including bogus self-employment, resulting from forms of employment and business models emerging as a result of digitalisation. Clarification of the legal framework and support for workers in bringing cases to court could be approaches for governments and social partners to take in this context.
  • From a cross-national perspective, policy needs to ensure that differences between legal and institutional systems are not exploited to decrease employment quality by using digitised workflows to outsource labour to regimes with lower employment protection.

Need to ensure good working conditions

Digitally enabled business models and work organisation have the potential to affect working conditions for better or worse. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) can result in more objective task assignment and performance appraisal, and automation can improve workers’ health and safety if physically demanding or hazardous tasks are done by machines. On the other hand, digitisation and platform work have been found to have the potential to negatively impact working time quality and workers’ autonomy and flexibility if intrusive surveillance practices are applied.

Policy pointers

  • Policy needs to ensure that digital technologies are deployed in the workplace in a human-centric way. The opportunities inherent in digitalisation to improve working conditions should be exploited, while risks need to be anticipated, avoided or mitigated. To achieve this, further information on the use of different technologies in the economy and the impact of deploying them on working conditions is needed, and should be disseminated to policymakers, employers and workers. On this basis, existing regulatory frameworks such as legislation and collective agreements should be reviewed to ensure that they are fit for purpose in the digital age and, if necessary, modernised to take into account the effects of digitalisation. At sectoral and workplace levels, social dialogue could play an important role in addressing emerging issues.
  • The opportunities for working time flexibility and improved work–life balance related to digitisation and platform work could be used strategically to support the labour market integration of specific groups, such as those with care responsibilities or health issues. At the same time, the dangers of too few or too long working hours, unpredictable working hours, unsocial working hours and requirements for constant availability should be addressed. Some existing working time regulations, at both EU and Member State levels, were established a long time ago and accordingly may not fully address the particularities of working time in the digital age. A critical review and, if necessary, modernisation of such regulations could be beneficial for the labour market, particularly if the results provide greater clarity about what constitutes working time (for example, does randomly checking emails after work or waiting for an algorithm to assign a task count?). At the same time, the implementation of the Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions should be closely monitored, and lessons learned exchanged across Member States.
  • As of mid-2021, some countries had established regulations on remote work (which is often discussed in relation to the blurring of boundaries between work and private time) and the right to disconnect, while others were discussing and considering such regulations. At EU level, information on the different approaches could be collected and disseminated, to foster exchange among Member States. At national level, systems to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of such regulations should be established and the results used to adapt them as necessary.
  • Among the most discussed issues relating to working conditions in the digital workplace is that of data collection, ownership, use and protection. Digital technologies, notably those involving digitisation, create a large amount of data on workers that can be used, including in combination with AI and algorithms, for various labour-related purposes, such as recruitment, task assignment, management of workflows, performance appraisal, and monitoring and surveillance. However, not all that is technically possible is ethically acceptable. Policy needs to ensure transparency about what data are generated for what purposes and that they are used in a human and ethical way. There is a need to build upon the EU General Data Protection Regulation and legal framework on AI and relevant national legislation, and to modernise national regulatory frameworks with a view to addressing the challenges posed by digitally enabled work organisation. Workers and their representatives should be consulted on the design and implementation of data-based and data-driven work organisation. Objective redress bodies that workers can approach if they feel that their data have been misused or algorithm-based systems designed to their disadvantage need to be established and sufficiently resourced (in terms of both financial resources and skills/capabilities to make sound assessments). All these aspects should apply not only to employees but also to self-employed workers (for example, those involved in digitised supply chains/networks or engaged in platform work).
  • Another area that deserves policy attention is the health and safety of workers. In the field of automation, for example, policymakers could increase their efforts to inform employers about how robots and other technologies could best be used to reduce physically demanding and hazardous tasks for workers and could help them to adopt such solutions through financial support and advice and consultancy. At the same time, both employers and workers should be informed about the physical risks that can emerge when humans work with or next to advanced automation technologies. In this regard, automation technologies should not necessarily be considered in isolation. The proposed regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on machinery products could, for example, address harmful events arising from the use of AI-empowered machinery, since it proposes that AI software ensuring the safety of machinery is to be independently vetted.
  • In relation to digitisation and platform work, psychosocial issues may become an increasingly important topic, for example in relation to algorithmic management and control, which can cause stress and alienation. Existing health and safety regulations should be reviewed for their coverage of psychosocial aspects, and monitoring bodies (such as labour inspectorates) could be encouraged to pay additional attention to psychosocial risks and impacts. As mentioned above, ideally safeguards in this respect should be accessible not only to employees but also to self-employed people affected by digital work organisation.

 

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