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The Digital Revolution Is Putting the European Social Model to the Test

Austrian Parliament, 18 September 2018

The Interparliamentary Conference on SECG Discussed the Challenges Posed By Digitalisation to the Workplace and Social Systems

Vienna (PK) – Digitalisation has already had profound effects on the workplace and employment and will continue to present Europe with enormous challenges. The fourth session of the two-day Interparliamentary Conference on SECG, held in the context of the Parliamentary Dimension of the Austrian EU Presidency, focused on tackling these challenges. Representatives from parliaments in the EU Member States debated strategies for preventing the negative effects of digitalisation and for seizing the opportunities digitalisation offers. The fundamental tenor of the discussion highlighted that a joint effort is necessary in order to ready the European social model for the future.

Milena Angelova: A paradigm shift is needed in education

“The future has already begun,” stated Milena Angelova, Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee, in her introductory remarks. Digitalisation is rapidly and fundamentally changing how we work. We need to join together to tackle this transformation. Digitalisation and automation are destroying jobs, but also creating new ones, and fundamentally changing many job profiles. The Member States, social partners and EU institutions are needed in order to shape this transformation to the benefit of the workforce.

Digitalisation and automation are impacting the labour market. The number of both low and high-wage jobs is increasing, while the middle segment is losing out, said Ms. Angelova. Digitalisation can bring with it new freedoms and opportunities for workers, but can also lead to reduced job quality, fragmented career paths and less social protection. For that reason, it is important to adapt collective bargaining practices to take these changes into account.

Furthermore, Ms. Angelova sees the necessity of changing education and further training systems to accommodate this new digital reality. A growing imbalance can already be seen in that many people are searching for work and at the same time employers are finding it very difficult to find qualified employees. At the same time, however, existing skills are not being sufficiently tapped.

For that reason Ms. Angelvoa believes that a paradigm shift in education is indispensible; she also called for a job-training campaign that would not leave anyone behind. The education system must more closely connect education and employment, and enable lifelong learning. Instead of the rote learning of information as practiced in the past, it is now increasingly important to promote soft skills, such as problem-solving and contextual and critical thinking.

The European and Economic and Social Committee has devoted particular attention to how best to seize the opportunities of digitalisation. For Ms. Angelova, it is imperative that the European social model be maintained, and that digitalisation enable it to continue to function. For that reason it is important to continue to focus on people. Essentially, the EU and its Member States already have the necessary instruments in place in order to take the relevant political decisions, she said.

MEP Rodrigues: Financing a social system for everybody is possible

In her keynote, Member of European Parliament Maria João Rodrigues pointed out that the digital revolution had already begun to affect all areas of our lives. Production and supply chains are being increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence. The workplace is undergoing massive transformations as a result, for example with digital platforms that create new, atypical employment opportunities. This means that more and more people have been left without the appropriate social and labour-law protections, Ms. Rodrigues warned. Europe must confront these challenges. “A Europe that Protects,” to quote the motto of the Austrian EU presidency, also includes social protections. We must not allow a portion of the workforce to fall through the cracks of the social system due to the digitalisation of the workplace.

Responses are already being drawn up, said the MEP. The EU Commission is currently working on a proposal for new labour law directives. According to Ms. Rodrigues, the answer to the question of how to finance comprehensive social protections for the 21st century must be sought in changes to the current tax systems. She also clearly came out in favour of a digital tax, saying that she was convinced that financing a social system for everybody was possible if the big players contributed their share.

Preventing a digital divide is a must

There was a consensus among the parliamentarians that digitalisation, robotics and artificial intelligence had already led to profound changes in the workplace and on the labour market. These impacts can be seen in the increasing flexibility of working hours, as well as in the growing number of atypical forms of employment, not to mention part-time work. There was also agreement that this development necessitated new political strategies.

One key question for the parliamentarians was how social and pension systems could be secured in the long-term. Digitalisation cannot be an end unto itself, but must secure the rights of workers and access to the social system for everybody, was a comment made by a number of participants. Several parliamentarians pointed out the risks that digitalisation entails, such as an unequal access to digital resources, a hollowing out of workers’ social rights and a  worsening of working conditions.

Everybody was also in agreement that all aspects of society, not just policymaking, needed to become involved in order to tap the potential of digitalisation and to cushion its negative impacts. For that reason, social partners continue to be relevant, many pointed out. The general tenor was also that education systems must be capable of teaching young people the necessary skills in order to survive in the digital workplace. Lifelong learning must also be part of the answer.

We must also make sure to avoid splitting society and creating a digital divide at all costs, be it in access to education, ensuring coverage for rural areas or enabling equal opportunity both between generations and between the sexes, as many parliamentarians emphasised.

In closing, conference chair Karlheinz Kopf thanked the participants of the conference for the interesting, disciplined and constructive debate. This shows that common solutions can be found despite different points of departure, he said.

PLEASE NOTE: Photos of the conference can be found at the website of the Austrian Parliament at https://www.parlament.gv.at/ENGL/PERK/PE/EU2018/WIPOCONF/

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