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Shaping the future of work collectively

Shaping the future of work collectively

Reiner Hoffmann, President of the German Trade Union Confederation and speaker at the Digitising Europe Summit, talks about digitisation in the world of work.

Digitalisation is changing the world of work in almost all industries. What positive effects do you foresee and what role do trade unions play in shaping digitisation?
Reiner Hoffmann: The expectation that digitalisation will necessarily improve working conditions has not been fulfilled and the threats of digital unemployment are tangible. Of course, digital assistance systems could make work more efficient and offer opportunities for a greater work-life-balance, for flexible and upskilled work. We can, for example, design work to accustom workers’ age, increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities and improve occupational health and safety. But the human machine interface has to be shaped carefully, because digital assistance systems like interactive robots – cobots – need to collect, analyse and work with the personal data of the employees in order to support them. With the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) proceedings employees can be measured and monitored even in a predictive way; many digital applications include trade-offs. These need to be discussed in order to flesh out smart regulations. Digitalisation will not improve working conditions unless we manage to shape it collectively. Trade unions have been participating in the political process accompanying industry4.0, work4.0 and AI for years. Social partners in Germany are conceiving, elaborating and accompanying several research projects and innovation spaces on specific issues in order to enhance the working conditions.  In some industries, this has already led to collective agreements concerning innovative worktime solutions. However, conflict lines – regarding alignment, regulation and distribution – will not dissolve by the mere use of technology.

Reiner Hoffmann is since May 2014 president of the German Confederation of Trade Unions. He holds a degree in economics and committed important stages of his life to the cause of the trade union movement. After having worked at the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Community in Brussels he joined in 1983 the Hans Böckler Foundation in Düsseldorf where he became Head of Department and was responsible for research funding. In 1994 he was appointed as Director of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) in Brussels. At the 2003 Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), he was elected as Deputy General Secretary of the ETUC and was re-elected at the 2007 Congress. In November 2009, he became regional Chairman of the Industrial Union for Mining, Chemicals and Energy (IG BCE) for the district of “Nordrhein” (a region of the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia) (Photo: Simone M. Neumann)

A core demand of trade unions is co-determination when new technologies should be applied. Why is this so particular important when AI – automated decision making systems – are introduced at the workplace?
 AI-based systems are not mysteries but tools that work on the optimisation of different purposes. As AI is made by humans, the key question is who decides on the goals that an AI would pursue? To make AI improve working conditions, it is a key requirement to let workers and their representatives participate and negotiate the goals of the use of technology from the very beginning. Employees must have a direct say, thus we need to strengthen bargaining and co-determination rights. A breaking point for AI in the workplace is the question of personal data. AI must not be used for individual profiling to predict someone’s future performance and dismiss employees who cannot meet the artificially generated performance expectations.

The labour market of the future is likely to offer fewer people a homogeneous CV, as it used to be, and training and continuous learning will play a greater role: But is it realistic that a new digital job can be offered to all workers whose former workplace was automated?
 Not everyone who loses their job will become an IT specialist. But everybody should have the opportunity to find a new job before unemployment is occurring. The debate on digitalisation naturally includes concerns about job security and employment at large. We have to prepare workers and employees according to occupational mobility in order to find new and upskilled jobs. Recent studies have pointed to the structural nature of the digital transformation, which will not destroy but change millions of job-profiles. Therefore, we have to adjust education and vocational training. Employers must acknowledge the challenges and accept responsibility to expand training on operational purposes. We also need to encourage the workers to lifelong learning in order to be able to change a job and to collaborate und harness smart machines as a supporting system.  Trade unions have already implemented collective agreements that facilitate part-time work due to qualification periods. To foster lifelong learning for everyone, we also need public programmes avoiding unemployment and social tensions.

You said that artificial intelligence should support people rather than replace them: Would it not make more sense to use the full potential of AI and pay an unconditional basic income to the employee at home because AI simply does its job more efficiently?
Digitilisation does not only concern technology, it changes our everyday life. For me, the paramount potential of AI refers to a change in value creation, not to a replacement of human work. For example AI, connectivity and networking effects will result in novel customer-relations. The profiles of millions of jobs will change – and with them the specific requirements. This is the most significant challenge we are facing today, so we need enormous public investments in vocational and educational training. An UBI would be an unconditional surrender and would put pressure on wages and social standards. More importantly, work is not only a question of earnings – it creates meaning, identity and social life. Putting employed people on the side-track and paying them some sort of compensation would be a misdirection. Everyone must have a fair chance to be able to do useful work and get a fair pay.

The United States and China are fully committed to digitisation and are delivering an arms race for new technologies: must Europe be just as aggressive or is there another European way to keep up?
Of course, Europe needs to catch up with regards to data infrastructure and capacity. But we should also be aware of particularly European strengths: In contrast to the U.S. or China we have a longstanding market economy model that aims to couple economic and social prosperity. Trade unions play a key role in ensuring that this social contract will be continued and renewed so that workers benefit from economic growth – even more so in the future. Rest assured: Trade unions, workers’ councils and the workers themselves have a big interest in business innovation because it obviously is the best job insurance. One decisive factor is how to shape the human-machine-interface. Therefore, policy makers and stakeholders should not just debate ‘opportunities and threats’ on an abstract level. We are aware of a structural drive dissolving the borders of industries – turning out in novel value chains and structural power as well. But: digitalisation is made by humans – and it is a human responsibility to shape the digital world, in particular the working world. We are not waiting for the future of work to begin, we are creating it.