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Digital transformation should be socially and ethically responsible

Digital transformation

Appropriate skills, social protection and diversity in the workplace will all be crucial for the future, as will social dialogue about the introduction of new technologies

The digital transition in the EU should be underpinned by respect for European values and supported by more robust social policies, to ensure that no one is left behind. European society as a whole – workers, companies and the general public alike – should instead benefit from the huge potential offered by new technologies, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said at its July plenary.

"We disagree with the assumption that 'digitalisation will result in winners and losers'", rapporteur for the opinion on EU concepts for transition management in a digitalised world of work, Franca Salis-Madinier, told the plenary. "It should be possible for everybody to benefit. It can be ensured that no one is pushed aside."

In the opinion, the Committee listed several priorities for the EU which should make sure that the benefits of digitalisation can be reaped.

One of the top priorities is upskilling European workers, i.e. ensuring that they have the appropriate skills for the future, as the vast majority of jobs will be affected by digitalisation. To keep pace with development, the EESC said, "all sectors will need workers not only with high levels of cognitive and creative skills but also with managerial and communication skills and the ability to learn".

There is an urgent need for a policy focusing on training and life-long learning, with the aim of reducing skills shortages and mismatches. Currently, some 22% of workers in the EU may not have the right digital skills to keep up with developments in their jobs.

Particular attention should be paid to workers in low-skilled occupations at high risk of automation, transformation, replacement or even disappearance.

Another priority is to bolster social security systems, which should be of high quality and financially viable so as to guarantee protection for all workers, including those in the flexible and atypical forms of employment that are now on the rise. This is in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. The EESC also stressed the importance of holding social dialogue on adapting social protection systems to the new forms of work.

However, as the EESC highlighted in its opinion, investment in social policies currently accounts for only 0.3% of total public expenditure in the EU, which should be beefed up.

Diversity in the workplace was also singled out as a top EU objective. For example, most jobs in the IT sector and other well-paid and highly recognised fields are currently predominantly occupied by men. This needs to change if we want to avoid inequalities in the future world of work.

In its opinion, the EESC also reiterated its support for a "human-in command" approach to digitalisation, and said it encouraged the development of socially responsible artificial intelligence that served the common good. It also said that the lack of clarity surrounding how algorithms worked and how they made the choices that were beyond human control posed fundamental questions about the society we wanted to live in.

"We stress the importance of the human-in-command principle – whatever happens, humans should be in charge", said the co-rapporteur for the opinion, Ulrich Samm. "Modernisation is in our hands: we decide what the world should look like, what our environment should look like, what technologies we want to use."

According to this principle, machines clearly have the role of serving humans, with more complex, ethical and human-related tasks left under human control. One positive example is the increased use of "collaborative robots" to help workers or people with disabilities.

"This should allay our fears; we should acknowledge that we are in the driver's seat", said Mr Samm.

The EESC opinion was requested by the Austrian Presidency of the EU and will provide key input for an EU White Paper on the future of work. The EESC has already produced several opinions on this topic, at the request of the Estonian and Bulgarian presidencies.