By Thorben Albrecht and Maria Mexi
Digital technology entails countless opportunities to improve working conditions and job quality. They can make work easier and more humane. But at the same time, we can see that digital technologies also create new challenges for the quality of work. If not regulated properly they can lead to overlong working hours, slashing of workers’ rights and loss of social protection..
To explore the opportunities as well as necessary adjustments to regulation and welfare schemes the German Labour Ministry started a public dialogue “Work 4.0” in 2014 to involve experts, business, trade unions artists and citizens to discuss policy recommendations which culminated in a policy White paper at the end of 2016. The underlying motivating factor was not to let technological change shape the way people work and live, but to be more in control of these changes and trends, and find out first how do people want to live and work, and then ensure that technological change is an enabler for that.
The process started with a public kick-off conference and was followed by meetings of an expert group, stakeholder consultations, online public consultations and even a film festival in 25 cities with movies about the theme followed by panel-discussions.
The idea for the dialogue in all its forms was to understand what is going on in people’s lives and on the shop-floor and also to learn about the preoccupations of citizens before moving to policy recommendations. Hence a Green Paper set the scene for the dialogue by outlining the greatest challenges and opportunities. It was followed by a study on values. By conducting deep interviews with a representative sample of 1200 people living and working in Germany about their values and relationship to work, valuable insight into some of the main drivers of change, but also preoccupations and preferences of working people was gained.
This study did not make policy formulation easier as it showed the diversity of people’s preferences in relation to their working lives. Some prefer to have a clear boundary between their work and private life while others are happy to embrace flexibility in both directions and organise their work around family obligations. There is also a difference in terms of prioritising security, as some really value social protection, a stable wage and high-level of security, whereas others, which see themselves as independent high-performers, prefer to rely on themselves and enjoy a high degree of flexibility and self-determination.
Since the White Paper “Work 4.0” was presented at the end of 2016 many of its policy recommendations are being implemented in Germany. For example labour market policies moved from active labour market policies to pro-active policies aiming to prevent unemployment instead of helping people only if they are already unemployed. Now the unemployment insurance can fund re-skilling and up-skilling already when people are still in employment, but their job in its current form is at risk due to automatisation.
Also so-called innovation spaces have been put into place, which encourage companies to carry out pilot experiments in the new digitalised world of work, enhancing time sovereignty for workers, developing skills training and transfer, promoting healthy digital workplaces and shaping transformation through social dialogue – and then openly share their learnings, failures and successes, to ensure the collective benefit from experimentation.
The German experience in shaping Work 4.0 is informative for Greece in many different ways. Here are three fundamental lessons.
Ten years ago, Greece was bailed out after a devastating global financial crisis brought the country to its knees. Through the pandemic crisis, Greece managed to ”flatten the curve” while leapfrogging into digitalisation on several fronts in administration and in government. Now it is time for the country to bring the ”digital momentum” into the world of work. By coining the term “Work 4.0” and linking it to the Industry 4.0 economic discussions, the German case sends a strong message: that social progress in the digital age is no less important than economic growth; and that social policy cannot be a supplement to economic policy, but an equal counterpart. This is crucial for Greece, especially now, as the impact of COVID-19 is being felt across the social spectrum. Preparing Greece for the digital economy requires more than putting the right forward-looking economic and industrial policies in place; it also requires refitting social policies and skills systems to ensure that inclusive growth benefits all: young people, as they get prepared for the jobs of the future, and older workers, as they need to become more resilient in the face of an ever-changing, technology-rich work environment.
Moving both its economy and welfare state into the digital era means a new generation of social policies for Greece that combines, as the German experience shows, policy experimentation with innovative forms of partnerships, trust-building through public awareness-raising on the challenges ahead, and policy formulation that draws on ground-based data and research. Both data and transformative vision are needed to navigate the complexities of the digital transformation and its fast-changing dynamics of the labour market landscape.
Greece’s efforts to accelerate digital innovation need to be combined with a proactive model of social policy – a vision for ‘good quality jobs in an era of digital change’ – that reflects in a more dynamic way the issues that will become even more relevant in coming years: changing occupational structures, working time and flexibility. Turning active labour market policies into proactive policies and agencies managing unemployment into proactive qualification agencies, personal employment accounts, and working time conditionalities that allow exploring new balances between companies and employees’ needs are some of the options found to fit better the German context. These examples offer much food for thought, as Greece gets to devise its own innovative solutions drawing on the specificity of its welfare state and socio-economic vulnerabilities.
Perhaps the most fundamental lesson of the German experience is that the digital transformation will not come through unless all are convinced that their views can be expressed and that their interests can be represented. In other words, that they all can have an equal say in shaping Greece’s future of work. As described above, planning an agenda for the transition to Work 4.0 in Germany required novel multi-stakeholder approaches to building cooperation and consensus, informing policy design and implementation. Crucially, that process required more than involving only the social partners in mapping out the challenges, but connecting policy with epistemic communities and engaging with society as a whole.
Shaping the future of work, we learn from Germany, is above all a genuine democratic process of exchange of ideas and dialogue that is deeply rooted in our role and obligations as ”citizens”. After all, equipping the digital worker for future labour markets is no different than empowering the digital citizen of tomorrow.
In managing the pandemic crisis, Greece has emerged as an example to others – an example of collective determination, while unity of purpose among political and societal forces has never been stronger. These principles provide a great legacy for shaping the post-covid-19 digital era. The opportunity to build a future of work that is both innovative and fair, by bringing everyone to the table – political parties, academia, trade unions and employer organisations, and also the general public – should not be wasted.
The digitalisation of workplaces requires bold and urgent action by governments and law-makers. Social partnership, co-determination and democratic participation in shaping working conditions are core elements to promote decent work in digital economy. But they need to recognise the growing diversity in workers’ needs and preferences regarding working life, which entails giving people more autonomy over the way they structure their lives. To make the most of the potential offered by technological change for shaping and organising work in a better way, regulation, education and welfare systems must support vulnerable workers and offer new opportunities for all. In this context, countries learning from each other, sharing knowledge and expertise, and building channels for cross-border collaboration will make sure that nobody is left behind, as Europe is preparing to make its own way into the future of work. It is in this spirit that the present article has been written.
Thorben Albrecht is an internationally acknowledged expert on the future of work and has been a member of the Global Commission on the Future of Work established by the International Labour Organisation and chaired by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from 2017 to 2019. He was a State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social from 2014 to 2018. Among his most important projects have been the introduction of a statutory minimum wage in Germany and the “Work 4.0” dialogue – a public dialogue on the future of work in the digital age.
Maria Mexi is a consultant at the International Labour Organization (Geneva) advising on issues of digital work, and director of research programmes at the Graduate Institute—Albert Hirschman Centre of Democracy and the University of Geneva. She is also a special adviser on labour and digital economy issues to the President of the Hellenic Republic.
Source : ToVima, Sunday ed., 5 July 2020 / (subscriber-only article)
Thorben Albrecht is policy director at IG Metall. He was a member of the Global Commission on the Future of Work established by the ILO and a state secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs from 2014 to 2018.
Consultant at the International Labour Organization (Geneva) advising on issues of digital work, and Director of Research Programmes at the Graduate Institute—Albert Hirschman Centre of Democracy and the University of Geneva, Special Adviser on Labour and Digital Economy Issues to the President of the Hellenic Republic.
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