Stop having an “ambulance” view of social policy! Integrating the voice of workers and trade unions in the digitisation process is a key success factor for cooperation, for innovation – and for our democracy.

Published 22 March 2017
Updated 18 August 2017

This is a guest blog post written by Mr Luc Triangle, Secretary General of industriAll European Trade Union 

Digitisation: two years to rise from the end to the top of the workers’ agenda

Digitisation of industry is a rising tide. When we first discussed internally about the topic at industriAll European trade union, in early 2015 – only two years ago! –, hardly anybody knew what this concept was about. We had heard about “Industrie 4.0” in Germany, we were aware of some technological developments in laboratories – but this appeared to be very far away from our members’ immediate concerns. Now, in early 2017, we don’t count the trade unions events in which digitisation of industry is a central issue.

Four policy challenges

We are concerned, because we identify four important policy challenges brought on by the digital transformation of industry:

(1) the potentially negative net impact of digitisation on the number of hours worked by humans;

(2) the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of digital industrial platforms (Amazon, AliBaba, Google, Amazon, Facebook), which risks depriving EU industrial players from the value added that they need to invest, innovate and provide good jobs;

(3) the dissolution of the employment relationship brought by “crowd-working” platforms;

(4) the potential for workers to be automatically evaluated and controlled.

The social dimension at the centre

industriAll European trade union has developed its strategic views on the digital transformation of industry and adopted concrete policy recommendations to address these challenges.

Beyond these direct policy answers, our many, intense discussions with our members also confirmed a deep belief: the social dimension must be at the centre.

It is only when people feel that they are given a fair share of the added value a(i.e. with equality) and that they have sufficient confidence in their own future – (i.e. with predictability) that they are ready to change. Good social conditions are the prerequisite for the uptake and dissemination of innovation – and specifically for socially disruptive innovations such as those brought by digital technologies. The digital transformation will only be embraced by citizens and workers if the digital transformation can find a solution for all the social disruptions it will bring. If we don’t consider this a priority, digital transformation will lead to more inequality and social and political uncertainty.

The European Commission could and should do more to support a “just transition” for workers

The European Commission is fully aware of the potential negative effects of digitisation on the job market and on social inequality. In the Stakeholder Forum in Essen, the Commission clearly stated that the social strategy is designed to be inclusive and aims to have a cohesive society. The strong focus on SMEs and on digital skills is a clear signal in this direction. Other positive signals are the effort in developing European digital industrial platforms and the critical analysis of the need for regulation of digital economy. The clear objective is to avoid the creation of a "digital divide" in which only a few people would reap all the economic benefits of digital technologies. However, more could and should be done, at national and at EU level, to ensure a “just transition” for all workers impacted by the digital transformation of industry.  

Engage in social dialogue on digitisation now in every Member State

The launch of the European Platform of National Initiatives for digitisation of industry, in Rome on 24 March 2017, is a very good opportunity for social dialogue. This EU-level initiative needs to take into account the social aspects of digitisation, coordinating and stimulating discussion in all Member States through the relevant National Initiatives. Their purpose should be to ensure that, in a digitally-transformed society and industry, every person is enabled to:

  • earn a decent living from his/her work – i.e. prevent unemployment and in-work poverty
  • have a reasonable confidence in his/her future – i.e. prevent precariousness.

This is the necessary condition for our societies to be inclusive, innovative and able to adapt to the massive societal challenges of the 21st century. It is also the price for democracy.