When the ETUC started to discuss digitalisation issues, the debate was quite developed in some countries while in other countries there was no public debate at all. At the European level, the European Commission set the tone with its communications on ‘collaborative economy’ and ‘online platforms’, which were discussed in the European Parliament.
The Commission saw the platform economy mainly as a source of growth and employment, often neglecting its negative aspects. The Commission preferred spreading euphoria, and advertised digitalisation as the recipe against unemployment and slow economies. It was the Parliament that looked at both sides, the opportunities and the risks, and asked the Commission not only to deliver more facts and figures, but also to reflect upon mitigating the negative aspects of labour platforms by delivering a directive.
Online workers were, and often still are, not covered by employment law or collective agreements. They seldom have access to social security, paid leave, training etc. owing to the simple fact that the platforms regularly require workers to register as selfemployed. The ETUC also saw the need for more evidence and drafted an online questionnaire survey, the first Europe-wide online questionnaire on digitalization, to find out what was happening on the ground in Europe.
Our main objective was to learn more about the challenges faced by and the practices of worker representatives at shop-floor level, trade unionists, and members of works councils, of European works councils or supervisory boards. The response was far greater than expected – in the end, more than 1,500 colleagues from all over Europe participated and delivered interesting insights. This is what our report is about. We thank Eckhard Voss very much for designing and implementing the survey and for drafting this report. In parallel, the questionnaire contained a smaller section aimed at online workers. The results show that the potential for trade unions is higher than expected. Online workers are not only global workers who deal with, for instance, software development and can work from any place on the globe. They also work in sectors such as cleaning, transport, food delivery and similar locally provided services – most of the participants in the survey are from this latter group.
The problems faced by local service providers can be addressed in a European directive, which would constitute a clearly necessary step in the right direction in terms of protecting online workers. Digitalisation is more than a catchword. It is and will remain at the centre of many debates, namely those linked to the rapid development of artificial intelligence, which is surrounded by many societal, ethical and even philosophical questions, but also those touching on digital assistants, block chain, genetic engineering, the future of work, and cobots.
Workers’ participation is and will remain key in shaping fair digitalisation and the future of digital work – this principle was the starting point of the questionnaire and remains the central message of European trade unions. There will be no fair digitalisation without appropriate and mandatory workers’ participation!