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28 June 2016

From tomorrow's vision to today's trade union actions - Day 1 Conference Shaping the new world of work

conference shaping the new world of work

Trade unions must be closely involved in the evolution of a new, climate-friendly global economy based on Internet connectivity and new technologies. World-famous American economist and government adviser Jeremy Rifkin set out his vision for the third industrial revolution at the three-day Shaping the New World of Work conference in Brussels on 27 June, organised by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

Using the Internet of Things to create a “digital planetary platform” linking communications, energy and transport and drawing on innovations ranging from driverless cars to energy cooperatives, humanity can tackle the challenges of growing inequality and climate change, he told an audience of several hundred participants.

Wind and solar energy could create 23 million jobs in construction and 17.5 million operational posts over 35 years, outstripping by 3 million the number of jobs likely to be lost in fossil fuel-based industries.

“But it's an uphill challenge. I'm not a technological determinist, and I'm not an optimist,” admitted Professor Rifkin. But he remained “guardedly hopeful” due to changing attitudes among young people, who see access to services – such as car sharing and social media - as more important than owning products. The rapid growth of the sharing economy, with more and more goods and services available at zero marginal cost, will mean a rethink of the whole notion of income, he predicted.

“Labour leaders should be at the table,” he urged. “The labour movement is about equity. This is a disruptive revolution, and trade unions should be leading it.”

But responding to Jeremy Rifkin, Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), insisted on the need for a 'just transition' towards the digital economy to avoid trade union members losing their jobs.

Speakers at the opening plenary session agreed that new technologies and digitalisation, in themselves, are neither good nor bad, but the way they are used and regulated will determine whether they improve lives for European workers, or generate greater insecurity and inequality. New technologies have the potential not only to create jobs, but also to destroy them, and benefits may not be spread equally. Some experts estimate that 47% of jobs in the US could be automated over the next 40 years, warned Jeffrey Franks, Director of the IMF's Europe Office.

The emphasis therefore was on what trade unions, employers and governments should be doing to ease the transition to a digitalised labour market, because dialogue is crucial. Trying to stop innovation will not succeed, however, and adapting is a better strategy than resisting, said Jeffrey Franks.

Coming to the debate from different angles and different organisations, some of the speakers were more optimistic than others. But all united in rejecting 'technological determinism'. “This is a discussion about policy,” insisted the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder. “The mega-drivers of change cannot be reduced just to technology.”

Mark Keese, head of the OECD's employment, analysis and policy division, identified some of these mega-trends as globalisation, climate change, an ageing population and unforeseen political developments. Speaking just four days after the UK referendum, all the panellists clearly had Brexit on their minds, prompting Guy Ryder to warn against predicting the future. “You're likely to be proved wrong,” he cautioned.

EU Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen said the UK decision left no room for “business as usual”, making it more important than ever for the 27 remaining Member States to work together to make the EU stronger. “The question of how to shape the world of work is most relevant. How can we offer people fair working conditions and adequate social protection?”

Marianne Thyssen acknowledged that many people fear that the “fundamental transformation of the world of work” will bring a downward spiral in conditions. The European Commission hopes to tackle this threat through its new Pillar of Social Rights, focusing on education and employment, working conditions and social protection, and aiming for upward convergence in standards. Trade unions need to be involved in developing a digital labour market with more inclusive workplaces, a better work/life balance and improved working conditions, she concluded.

Guy Ryder attacked the “mistaken policies” of the last 20 years that have generated massive inequalities and a younger generation fearful for the future. “We need to move forward in a different direction,” he urged. “We all know inequality has reached unacceptable levels, but we continue to apply policies that will increase it in the future.” Speakers agreed that investment in education and lifelong training to equip workers for new tasks will be crucial. Investment is a key challenge not only in education, but also in sustainable sectors where the market alone does not provide.

Questioned about the specific impact of new technologies on women, speakers referred to potential benefits from greater flexibility. “But it's not inevitable. We have to make it happen,” warned Jeffrey Franks.

Thomas Händel MEP, chair of the European Parliament's Employment Committee, took up the call for trade unions “to position themselves to have an impact on the political debate”. Workers' participation should be enhanced, and legislation is needed to guarantee social protection and a better work/life balance.

Asked what single policy would help to meet the challenge of new ways of working, Jeffrey Franks suggested protecting workers rather than jobs. “Reinforce dialogue and collective bargaining,” said Guy Ryder, while Mark Keese called for training both to equip young people for jobs and to up-skill workers, as well as social protection during periods of transition.

According to Mark Keese, the platform economy represents a return to the past: back to a pattern of piecework and labour on demand. Luca Visentini took up this theme. “We have to distinguish between real and false innovations,” he declared. “Uber, for example, is simply old-fashioned capitalism using new technologies to exploit workers. As trade unionists we have to fight this phenomenon, and we don't need new tools to do that.”

But other phenomena may require a different approach. Genuinely self-employed people in creative industries, for example, also need protection. In Nordic countries, trade unions have concluded framework agreements that can be adapted to the needs of self-employed workers. “We need a new kind of trade unionism to face these challenges in the future,” concluded Luca Visentini.

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