4th industrial revolution – let's grasp opportunities and courageously face challenges!

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Employers' organisations and trade unions alike will have to adapt to the tremendous changes that the 4th industrial revolution is bringing to labour markets. Employers stress the importance of making labour markets more flexible in order to fully grasp the opportunities provided by Industry 4.0, while trade unions emphasise that changes cannot undermine the protection of workers. The 4th industrial revolution is generating uncertainty and anxiety among workers and employers and so the more we work on identifying potential opportunities and risks, the better. Responsible, frank and open social dialogue at national level has a crucial role to play in this process. These are some of the conclusions emerging from the discussion on "Will the 4th industrial revolution radically change the roles and importance of both employers’ organisations and trade unions?"

We are already witnessing dynamic changes in various sectors of the economy, such as taxi services or the hotel industry, caused by new digital solutions. The revolution is happening and is unstoppable, said Henryka Bochniarz, President of the Polish Lewiatan Confederation. She stressed that further analysis of the impact of Industry 4.0 on the economy is needed in order to ensure that the changes do not catch us unawares. The panellists all agreed that social dialogue has a pivotal role to play in preparing for the coming changes.

Studies suggest that the opportunities brought by Industry 4.0 are enormous: if we manage to use it well, we might gain as much as EUR 1.25 trillion in added value by 2025, said Markus Beyrer, Director General of BusinessEurope. He acknowledged however that neither employers nor unions are yet ready for the change. Companies will need flexibility while workers will need security. Therefore, the social partners should work on an agreement provisionally called "flexicurity 4.0", a smart way of providing sufficient balance between flexibility and security.

The challenges of the industrial revolution must be addressed at European level. 40% of workers currently have insufficient digital skills, and Jacek Krawczyk, President of the Employers' Group, pointed out that this is a pan-European problem. He considers that adjusting the workforce's skills to the new situation will be vital. Many jobs will disappear from the market, and new occupations will appear. Life-long learning and retraining of workers are crucial for a smooth transition. The Polish ICT sector was given as an example of effective skill-matching. The current transformation of the economy triggered by the 4th industrial revolution will be a huge change-management project. The EU will not be able to manage this change without proper analysis at both European and national level.

We need a coherent European strategy to support innovative technologies. Industry 4.0 and its consequences are debated mainly at national level and only in a few EU countries, noted Gabriele Bischoff, President of the EESC Workers' Group. She felt that the EU will succeed only if we focus on innovative solutions, generating high added value. If new technologies are used mainly to reduce labour costs, it will rapidly increase social unrest. Ms Bischoff felt that trade unions should go back to their roots and concentrate on protecting and empowering workers. It was up to the unions to provide training and other tools to prepare people for this change.

Luca Visentini, General Secretary of ETUC, underlined the importance of a broad public investment programme to prepare the EU for the coming industrial revolution. "We will not benefit if we focus only on designing things that are produced elsewhere. Europe must keep design, production and research together," he added. In order to prepare for Industry 4.0, labour markets should be reinforced and made more resilient.

The panellists admitted that many sectors benefiting from the sharing economy were kept completely outside the tax system. This should be addressed, but in a balanced way in order to avoid overregulation.


The panel was organised by the EESC Employers' Group and took place during the European Forum for New Ideas in Sopot, Poland.