Germany: Social partner and research perspectives on digitalisation

In April 2015, the German Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) published a Green Paper entitled Working 4.0: Thinking further about work (82 KB PDF). Specifically, it looks at digitalisation and ‘Industry 4.0’ – a fourth industrial revolution based on information technology – and the effects of this on the labour market, the workforce and society. The paper's publication also served as a starting point for a new forum to discuss the future of work. 

Views of the social partners

At the beginning of November 2015, the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) held a congress looking at the impact of digitalisation.

Mr Reiner Hoffmann, the DGB president, stressed that digitalisation can generate more growth and better work (in German). However, he warned that it could also bring adverse effects, in terms of expectations of permanent availability, rising workloads and unpaid overtime. Working conditions of employees and their health needed to be protected, he said. But he did state that social partners in Germany were well-equipped to deal with the upcoming changes, since they are actively involved in conducting vocational training and providing skilled work.

Mr Jörg Hofmann, leader of the German Metalworkers‘ Union (IG Metall) pointed to the many opportunities offered by digitalisation and Industry 4.0. If workers are equipped with the required skills, industrial work could be upgraded in the future. Later in November, Mr Hofmann stressed that collaboration between robots and human workers could lead to a reduction of work that is both physically strenuous and dangerous to health (in German). While IG Metall is worried that employment could be lost in the future, he stated, the union also recognised that industrial change in the past did not lead automatically to 'empty production sites'. Furthermore, he said, the new trend of digitalisation does offer opportunities for companies to become more competitive, hence safeguarding employment in Germany.

The German Confederation of Employers’ Associations (BDA) highlighted that digitalisation will further evolve and will affect nearly all economic sectors in Germany. Mr Ingo Kramer, BDA president, said that the new technologies promised many opportunities for the German economy. However, he stressed, digital competencies and qualified labour were crucial if future opportunities were to be exploited.

And at the congress, Ms Andrea NahlesFederal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, called for secure and fair working conditions in a digitalised world. While more flexibility was expected of employees, she said, they also needed to be guaranteed greater security in return.

Employment impacts of digitalisation – research findings

One of the main questions debated at the congress was the impact of Industry 4.0 on future employment. Two research studies released in the fourth quarter of 2015 stress that jobs will still be available in the future.

The Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) highlighted that further digitalisation will not lead to massive job losses in the near future (in German). Moreover, it states, skilled workers in certain sectors will be even more in demand. Data from the IW human resource panel indicates that only 10% of those companies that have already strongly committed to digitalisation wants to cut jobs in the short-term. Moreover, almost 30% of these companies anticipates that they will create jobs. However, if jobs are threatened, low-skilled workers are most likely to be affected. The IW concludes that digitalisation will not necessarily make workers redundant; however, ensuring that workers gain the necessary skills will be the main task for the future.

Similarly, in an analysis from December 2014, the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) finds that only a small minority of jobs could be entirely replaced by computerisation (333 KB PDF, in German): just 0.4% of all employees liable for social security contributions work in jobs that could be fully replaced by computers. In its analysis, and like the IW, the IAB calls for upskilling workers at an early stage. The IAB estimates that assembly line jobs, or those of system operators, will be threatened: these workers in particular need to be trained for the jobs that will be available in the digital future. 

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