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Future of Work: Joining forces for a Just Transition to digital Europe

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Keynote Speech delivered at the Sustainability and Innovation Conference [Check against delivery]

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

The future is today – it is becoming reality faster than we can track and predict it.

Just as people get to grips with one new technology, another one comes along. Our workers find it hard to keep up with the latest developments in tech.

For some this is exciting, but others feel frightened. In Europe, 70% of people worry that a robot will take their job.

If you add to this the other transformations linked to the circular and low carbon economy, the democratic and participatory changes brought in by a shrinking civic space and the geopolitical changes in international relations, it can be unsettling.

We cannot (and should not) ignore people's fears.

If we want this transition to be successful, we must join forces to anticipate what is coming and pro-actively manage and shape change.

To this end, sustainable development offers the answer - and I have to say that I am particularly happy to discuss sustainability and innovation, as sustainable development, also intended as social sustainability, is the top priority of my presidency's programme.

The European Economic and Social Committee, which has a unique and key role to play in crafting a balanced view representing employers, trade unions and NGOs among others, has been at the forefront when it comes to address new trends and societal changes and especially it has been an ice-breaker on the topic of digitalisation and future of work.

The world of work has always known technological innovations. But, the rapid pace and nature of this current transformation with new technologies, such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics are without precedent.

Transformation of the world of work entails three phenomena: job destruction, job creation and above all, job transformation.

It is inevitable that some jobs will change. Some will also disappear, but I do not believe in the mass unemployment scenario of "a job-less future".

The World Economic Forum (2016) talked about the creation of 2.1 million new jobs until 2020, but also the destruction of 7.1 million jobs due to overstaffing, automation of jobs and disintermediation (the replacement of employees by self-employed workers) in the 15 economies they have identified.

The OECD announced significant employment disruptions in sectors such as manufacturing, transport, health, hospitality, education. 9% of jobs are at risk of being displaced as over 70% of the tasks they involve can be automated.

But job destruction is typically followed by job creation. Some new jobs have already appeared, such as web analysts and applications developers. The development of Artificial Intelligence systems will also require new jobs in engineering, IT and telecommunications and in big data.

Cedefop (the European Agency for the Development of Vocational Training) forecasts another half a million new jobs in ICT occupations in the EU by 2025. Sectors like the high-tech digital sector, care sector and the green economy have a great potential of job creation in the EU. Moving toward a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy can become a source of technological innovation with a massive job-creation potential.

Technology destroys some jobs and creates others, but its greatest effect is to transform jobs. People do their work more efficiently, with, for example, more support from online communications and information-sharing. An increasing part of work can be automated – not only the simple, repetitive tasks, but even more complex tasks. This will further increase with the continuous development of artificial intelligence (AI).

Some of these changes may have a considerable positive effect notably regarding working conditions: work-life balance, access to the labour market for disadvantaged or underrepresented groups (women, older workers, people with disabilities, etc.), more security in the transport and energy sectors, combating climate change.

But there is also a negative side:

  • We have more job polarisation, i.e. more low-paying and high-paying jobs and less middle-paying occupations.
  • In addition, digitalization and automation have given birth to new forms of work and to an increase in the number of non-standard (atypical) workers --including part-time employment, temporary employment, contractual arrangements involving multiple parties, or even ambiguous employment relationships such as undeclared work.
  • Non-standard work has some negative implications for workers' well-being compared with that of standard workers: new forms of work often imply a less good work quality, fragmented careers, more frequent periods of inactivity, less training opportunities, social protection and services.

These new forms of work may put welfare systems under strain, eroding revenues in tax and social security systems and undermine existing collective bargaining practices.

So, what can we do to mitigate problems and take advantage of digitalisation?

First of all, we need to be proactive, as investment decisions, framework and regulatory conditions (or the lack thereof) will determine how sectors, organisational and value creation models transform.

We need better statistics to be able to forecast developments of the labour market, particularly as regards the quality of work, the polarisation of jobs and income, and working conditions. The overall objective must be guaranteeing fair working conditions for all.

Moreover, the EESC supports the idea of a Just Transition approach, whereby policies are in place to ensure that those likely to be negatively affected are protected through income support, retraining opportunities and relocation assistance

If we are not proactive, we run the risk of widening social gaps. The challenge for public authorities, social partners and other civil society organisations is to manage the changes, creating quality jobs and being inclusive with people from all generations, gender or regions.

Another element of a smart management of technological change relies on a good system of education and training. This is, in fact, is probably the key element. We speak very often about the potential destruction of jobs due to digitalization and yet, more than once, when I talk to employers, they tell me that for some specific jobs they cannot find adequate people.

To counter that, we need a stronger match between educational systems and labour markets' needs and a better anticipation of skills needs. All that, can only be done through a better cooperation with employers and their organisations.

We must equip people with the right skills: digital skills, but also basic, technical (notably mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology), soft skills (critical thinking, teamwork, creativity) and language skills. They have to be acquired through initial education and training as well as, continuously, at the workplace.

Innovative workplace practices, on-the-job training and lifelong learning schemes can enable workers to upgrade their competences while prevent skills erosion.

Additionally, targeted policies such as paid educational leave, introduced in some Member States, can work as a positive incentive for retraining.

Coming from the EESC, let me say some words about the role of the organised civil society in dealing with change. Take the social economy for example. Civil society organisations must be fully involved and engaged in all relevant policies.

More trust should be placed in social partners to identify patterns of change and bargain framework conditions to enable workers to keep their job or to transition into a new one of similar if not better quality.

We can already see that in sectors with established social dialogue, new agreements on data or the introduction of new machines related to AI, IoT and Big Data gradually emerge. That can only lead to safer and better workplaces.

Additionally, the social partners themselves are optimally placed to make productive use of internet-based technologies and e-platforms to stimulate both their membership and dialogue.

Examples of new trade unions initiatives include the German Service Workers’ Union, which has set up a branch for self-employed in the gig economy, or IG Metal which runs a Faircrowdwork campaign.


Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude, let me say that the world of work will be what WE will make it. “Homo faber ipsius fortunae” (Man is the artisan of his fortune).

That was at the core of the Renaissance, a powerful and vast humanistic revolution, which re-established the real dimension of culture in its concrete relation with science, the art of government and the organization of economic and social life and founded the modern transformation of Europe.

Today we need a similar process. This is why my presidency's programme rests on the framing of a real rEUnaissance, based on three pillars: sustainable development, peace and culture.

As sustainable development provides necessary responses to the key transformations Europe faces, the EU needs to make  Agenda 2030 the horizontal priority out of it.

Europe must be sustainable - or it will not be at all.

Our Committee is calling for a comprehensive long-term EU Sustainable Development Strategy to integrate the SDGs into all EU policies and programmes and the governance mechanisms (in the European Semester for example).

If we manage it with care, in a proactive way, technological development can further contribute to productivity and flexibility in existing businesses, respond to people’s new aspirations and provide the ground for new quality jobs. All relevant stakeholders must work together to ensure that the future of work is fair and inclusive, offering employment opportunities for all and leading to social progress.

This is especially important now because the future of work is linked to the future of Europe.

Thank you for your attention and I wish you a fruitful discussion and debate today!