The new world of work
Just before the summer holidays were about to kick off I attended a conference hosted by ETUI-ETUC in Brussels. The goal was simple enough – to shape the new world of work.
The conference focused on the impacts of digitalisation and robotisation. These are not new concepts in the discussion of the world of work. They can seem to be the buzz-words at the moment, but so they were in 1920, 1960 and 1990.
But the technology has of coursed evolved since then. Robots are now passing the Turing-test and people are spending an increasing amount of time (and money) online. Thus the discussion sometimes appears to be stuck in a standstill. Often it seems that our minds, as soon as anyone mentions digitalisation, starts to paint out dystopic 1984-visions.
The digitalised economy is developing quickly, and trade unions, traditional companies and regulators still seem to be unsure on how to tackle it. Perhaps it is not a surprise as there is an overload of terms to describe the phenomenon, many of which means the same (the collaborative economy, the sharing economy, the platform economy, the on-demand economy etc). It is of course debatable of which terms are the most accurate, but let’s focus on the sharing, the collaborative and the gig economy for now.
The sharing economy is when a commodity, like a car or bike, is shared whereas the collaborative economy is when peers are collaborating on a task or project. This is not limited to a digital platform. You can share a car with your neighbors or get together in a creative free-lance team to collaborate on a specific task. For society it could mean that there is a need for a new taxation system and companies might need to rethink production. For trade unions it brings of the challenge of organizing free-lance workers.
The gig economy is described as the buying and selling of labour and services on platforms. This is, as its name tells, limited to a digital platform. Uber is, for example, not a part of the sharing economy but of the gig economy. It is the same old taxi service, but on a digital platform. As with Uber, many of the tech companies should not be seen as new form of company but as taxi and retail companies that just happens to be working in a gig economy. Therefore, one can argue, they should be covered by the same regulation as traditional taxi and retail companies.
But it is of course not as simple as that. The gig economy is unfortunately often characterized by precarious jobs and bogus self-employment. The gig economy is also in evidently linked to offshoring of work from local labour markets as-well as the risk of lowering working conditions. On the other hand, the gig economy has immense potential to increase growth and create new jobs. It is both a challenge and an opportunity for trade unions.
Therefore, it was refreshing to participate in the ETUI-ETUC conference that focused on constructive discussions and the way forward. Because the way forward is important. It may still be debatable on how digitalisation will affect us and our work life, but it is important for trade unions to engage now.
The key is to be constructive and collaborative. Trade unions need to reach out to the new players in the gig economy, many of which want to offer decent working conditions and pay but do not know how.
The Nordic model will also be increasingly important. Social dialogue and collective bargaining is better suited to address the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation. The development is going fast and as always; regulation is lagging behind.
It is especially important for trade unions in the financial sector. The banking and insurance business is likely to become increasingly digitalised. This brings new risks and needs for employees already employed in the sector but also for those in new forms of employment and/or employed by new players on the market. It may not be easy, but with constructive social dialogue and rethinking of the social contract trade unions can be a part of shaping the new world of work in a digital age.