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On 9 March 2021, the European Commission presented a vision and avenues for the digital transformation of Europe by 2030. The EU's ambition is to be digitally sovereign and to pursue policies that empower people and businesses to seize digital opportunities.

As with previous industrial revolutions, these innovations are theorised to profoundly affect the working conditions of billions of people all over the world. Digitalisation and AI will see many types of jobs disappear while creating entirely new categories of activities. Forecasting studies predict two main consequences for the world of work: an overall reduction in employment and an accentuation of wage inequalities. It is a common ascertainment that high-skilled and educated workers will be able to meet the new technological requirements and enjoy higher wages. Less educated and lower-skilled workers, on the other hand, will be burdened by the cost of automation and more exposed to income loss and unemployment.

In order to translate these ambitions into concrete terms, the Commission proposed a Digital Compass evolving around four cardinal points – one of them being dedicated to the digital transformation of the workplace. By 2030, three out of four companies should use cloud computing services, big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI), more than 90% SMEs should reach at least basic level of digital intensity, and the number of companies achieving a valuation of one billion dollars should double.

This latter objective stem from the fact that AI is expected to add as much as $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. In an economy where data is changing how companies create value, many believe that organizations will begin to replace human employees with intelligent machines. And this is already happening. Such practices have grown exponentially under the impetus of crowdworking – breaking down virtual services into tiny, simple and repetitive tasks sent out to and executed by a pool of workers. Besides assuming the duties of managers, algorithms are also intended, in the long run, to replace human work for these specific tasks.

Progress in automation depends heavily on machine learning, and thus on the availability of large datasets that algorithms can learn from. Without knowing it, crowdworkers are actually contributing to the development of leading-edge technologies meant to substitute them. This invisible side of gig work has been regarded as a considerable source of intangible capital for labour platforms. For instance, Lyft gained a stratospheric IPO valuation of $24 billion in 2019 despite losing over $900 million the preceding year. Such figures underline that the main asset of a digital labour platform is not the current sustainability of its business model, but its future potential to spearhead the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

According to Aída Ponce Del Castillo, senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute, ‘workers are in a subordinate position in relation to their employers, and in the EU’s eagerness to win the AI race, their rights may be overlooked. This is why a protective and enforceable legal framework must be developed, with the participation of social partners’.

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photo credit: European Commission