How digitalisation must be harnessed to save jobs

Reposted with permission of Social Europe

A framework agreement between the social partners should ensure job security and worker involvement are prioritised across the European Union.

Esther Lynch

The announcement of jobs losses around Europe as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has become an almost daily occurrence, as all sectors struggle to cope with the impact of lockdown. Preliminary research indicates that restructuring job losses have doubled in the second quarter of 2020, compared with previous years. Some 60 million EU workers are at risk of unemployment as the consequences of the crisis play out.

Trade unions are at the forefront of efforts to protect workers’ livelihoods. At the end of June, the European Trade Union Confederation and the three major EU-level employers’ organisations—BusinessEurope, CEEP and SMEunited—signed an Autonomous Framework Agreement, to work together on the introduction of digitalisation in workplaces across Europe. In the context of Covid-19, the deal has much wider relevance, as it provides a blueprint for negotiating a ‘just transition’ and change in the world of work.

Investing in workforces

The priority is to encourage an approach that fully involves workers and their trade unions. This must apply to restructuring situations caused by the virus, as well as to planned change. The agreement sets out that, instead of making redundancies, employers need to look at other options for maintaining and investing in their workforces, creating new opportunities and enabling workers to adapt to change.

The agreement applies across the EU, covering both public and private sectors and all economic activities, including online platform workers. The right of trade unions to represent workers is recognised and the agreement specifies that, in preparing for negotiations, unions must be able to consult all employees and should have the facilities and information required to participate fully throughout.

The issues of digitalisation, restructuring and equipping different sectors to respond to the coronavirus crisis are all interlinked. The fact that so many workers have suddenly found themselves relying on digital technologies to carry out their tasks has created a step change in terms of work organisation. One survey indicates that 74 per cent of companies expect some of their staff to continue working remotely in the long term. These workers must have full employee rights and representation, with no erosion of pay and working conditions.

Concrete proposals

As a framework agreement, the document does not replace any existing rights and it leaves it up to the social partners at national or local level to implement and bring to life the measures in the most appropriate way. The signing is just the beginning of the process. Now, the ETUC’s national and sectoral affiliates will be following up with employer counterparts to negotiate their own arrangements, with the ETUC supporting and advising at every stage.

Nevertheless, the agreement sets out concrete proposals, on skills, work organisation and working conditions, which can be tailored to local needs, through a five-stage process. The first step is to create a climate of trust on both sides, so that challenges and risks can be discussed honestly and openly. Next, the partners need to agree a joint mapping and assessment procedure, covering all the issues identified. The third step is to prepare an overview and adopt a strategy for digitalisation, followed—fourthly—by agreement on and implementation of appropriate actions. Finally, the fifth stage involves regular monitoring and evaluation of the process, with opportunities to learn and adapt on the basis of experience.

Retraining and upskilling for a digital environment is key to a successful response to, and after, the pandemic. It is up to the social partners to determine which (digital) skills are necessary and to organise training—free of charge to workers. This will enable workforces to contribute to economic recovery, rather than facing unemployment and a dangerous slump in living standards.

But since many businesses are under severe pressure, member-state governments need to play their part too, through financial backing, specialist advice and support for bargaining and negotiations. The EU has an important role in making resources available to member states and companies, for instance through restoring the solvency fund originally proposed by the European Commission as part of the recovery fund—as called for by the European Parliament—and increasing the Globalisation Fund. Europe needs a work-led recovery, and preventing insolvency and redundancy is a fundamental building-block.

Source of inspiration

The social-partner agreement should be a source of inspiration, not only for European businesses but also multinational companies. Around one in 20 cases of large-scale restructuring is transnational, with an average loss of over 3,000 jobs. There is a strong argument for greater rights for workers in cases of transnational restructuring.

The agreement includes important clauses on the availability of workers via the internet and the principle of ‘human control’ over technology. It urges employers to negotiate on working time and to protect workers’ health and safety. Although it does not specifically establish a ‘right to disconnect’, it does set out how such a right can be guaranteed.

The ETUC will continue to press for measures to oblige employers to respect the right to disconnect in EU law. The control of humans over machines should be guaranteed in the workplace and should underpin the use of robotics and artificial-intelligence applications. The consequence of this is systemic change: companies should not buy or use technology that does not respect this principle and they should respect workers’ rights to privacy in any surveillance and monitoring systems.

The aim of this ground-breaking agreement is to secure digital change that brings positive outcomes for workers. It can provide a blueprint for negotiation and co-operation in other areas, such as a just transition to protect workers in adapting to climate change.

Innovation, digitalisation and continuous investment in human capital will be vital for successful recovery from the pandemic and a transition towards sustainable growth in the EU. Shared commitment on the part of employers and trade unions at EU level makes a vital contribution.


Esther Lynch was elected as a deputy general secretary of the ETUC at its Vienna Congress in 2019, having previously been a confederal secretary. She has extensive experience of the trade union movement both in Ireland and at European and international level. Before joining the ETUC, she was the legislation and social affairs officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).

Our thanks to Social Europe:

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