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30 June 2016

Where do we go from here? Day 3 Conference 'Shaping the new world of work'

The final day of the ETUC-ETUI Conference on Shaping the New World of Work looked to the future, and how policy-makers, employers and trade unions can best tackle the challenges of digitalisation.

During the three days of debates, many speakers called for new or better targeted legislation to govern the evolving digital economy, and that was the theme of Wednesday afternoon's plenary session on 'How to re-think labour law'.

MEP Michal Boni, from the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament, called for a case-by-case approach to EU legislation. In some areas, such as data protection, “existing solutions may be adequate”. Nonetheless, innovations such as domestic robots pose new questions about how intimate personal data is stored and used. Other entirely new developments like driverless cars will inevitably demand changes to insurance legislation, professional drivers' qualifications and much else. But more knowledge is needed. “We should not discuss legal changes before better understanding the state of play,” he concluded.

Society is accustomed to the traditional labour market structure organised around employers and workers, reflected Isabelle Daugareilh from Bordeaux University. “Perhaps this definition should adapt”, although EU and national labour law has successfully accommodated different ways of working over the years, including freelance artists and writers. “The problem is that power is no longer expressed as it used to be,” with an erosion of employer responsibility. She was concerned at the way digitalisation creates 'monopoly' companies like Amazon with new opportunities for worker surveillance. To counter this trend, “the law has nothing efficient to offer”.

How to unite and organise workers in the digital economy was a recurring theme of the debate. The challenge for unions is to reach and recruit workers in a context where workplaces do not exist, and the very definition of worker and employer is becoming blurred beyond recognition.

Isabelle Daugareilh suggested creating collective places outside companies so as to avoid social control. Michel Bauwens, the Director of the P2P (peer to peer) Foundation spoke of “labour mutuals”, such as SMart, which offers workspace, legal and financial support for its 75,000 members in creative industries in Belgium. “If we abandoned the division between independent and subordinate workers, it would be a step forward,” he added.

At panel sessions during the conference, participants heard how crowdworkers are already getting organised. Kristy Milland runs, the oldest community for Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, “There's a lot of action already underway,” said Michael Silberman from IG Metall in Germany. In the US, Uber drivers have taken strike action, for example. “There are resources out there, so we need to find out what workers are already doing.”

Michel Bauwens contrasted the concept of “commons” - value created through the open sharing of knowledge (as in Wikipedia) - with the so-called 'sharing economy' of companies like Uber, where workers compete with one another and ownership rests in private hands. Facebook, for example, exercises centralised control over peer-to-peer technology, whereby none of the created value is shared with the co-creators (the subscribers).

Simon Deakin from Cambridge University agreed. “Uber is nothing but a tough-minded capitalist firm intent on a high rate of return,” he argued. “It is not benevolent.” The Luddite movement in Britain in the early 19th century was founded on “democratic resistance” to the courts' refusal to enforce long-standing rules for the defence of labour. He compared this to the European Court of Justice's rulings on the Viking and other cases, prioritising economic rather than social rights. “If courts only protect the rich and powerful, violence and disorder will ensue,” he warned.

Companies like AirBnB are impossible to regulate globally because US legislation was specifically designed to exempt internet firms from legal liabilities, explained Professor Deakin.

The final session of the day brought together employers' representatives from Denmark and BusinessEurope in Brussels, and trade unionists, who described how they are working together at EU level in areas like apprenticeships.

Catelene Passchier from the Dutch FNV took the opportunity to call for the social partners to come together to oppose EU competition rules that stand in the way of organising the self-employed and stop unions and employers negotiating their own solutions. “We have to show we can deliver by working together across borders, and with employers,” she declared. “it would be good for workers and good for Europe.”

“Is Europe ready to manage this transition in a way that avoids inequality?” demanded 'theme weaver' Jacki Davis, whose task was to bring together conclusions from the plethora of debates over the three days. Political will is needed to ensure the benefits are shared equally, but so far policies are failing and the social dimension being neglected, she said. One thing is certain: that all actors – trade unions, employers and all levels of government - need to cooperate to find solutions based on consultation and negotiation. A wide-ranging response should cover not only the social and employment impact but also issues such as company taxation, transparency, and fairness. Major investment in digital training is crucial to create a high-skilled and innovative workforce.

ETUI Director Philippe Pochet brought the conference to a close after three full days, with 650 participants and 150 speakers, 24 panels and seven plenary sessions. Many people praised the organisation, with one participant declaring it was the best conference he had ever attended on the issue of digitalisation and Shaping the New World of Work. A full report of the event will be published shortly.

Latest updates of news and video of the conference are available via the special Storify dossier.

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