Written by Stefano Spinaci and Mar Negreiro.
|The European Youth Event will bring together thousands of young people in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on 9 and 10 June 2023, to share ideas about the future of Europe. This introduction to one of the major topics to be discussed during the EYE event is one of 11 prepared by the Parliament’s Research Service (EPRS). It offers an overview of the main lines of EU action and policy in the area concerned, and aims to act as a starting point for discussions during the event. You can find them all on this link.|
Driven by recent economic and other crises, the switch to digital has transformed the European Union (EU) economy and the jobs being created. Platform work and teleworking are among the most visible signs of the increasing digitalisation of work and the growing demand for innovative ways to address our work-life balance. You may already be among the millions of Europeans receiving income as a platform worker, or teleworking for your employer or as a freelancer. The EU is keen to address concerns about your rights as a worker, and has many relevant pieces of legislation and initiatives in the works. A fair digital transition can deliver benefits for society, and transform the EU economy to be fit for future challenges while staying aligned with European values.
The digital revolution is redefining the world at unprecedented speed, transforming our personal and working lives, and affecting many sectors of the economy. Digital technologies are changing how people connect and exchange information, and how businesses operate and interact with customers. Digitalisation is changing the way we work, breaking new ground for innovative work arrangements where people can provide services via online platforms. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing portion of the workforce are now working (partly) remotely, sometimes – but not always – by choice, as part of a wider trend to seek better work-life balance,.
Digitalisation, automation and increased use of artificial intelligence are driving the future of work, with new jobs appearing as others become obsolete. The growing use of industrial robots will bring further job automation to many workplaces. As the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development points out, although the digital transformation may create many new opportunities, it will also make a growing number of current workers’ tasks redundant and will require substantial restructuring of workplaces. In parallel, on the labour market, non-standard forms of employment are on the rise, with atypical work patterns progressively replacing traditional full-time and part-time employment. These trends may make job losses and employment changes a more frequent occurrence for many workers, increasing the need for income- and re-deployment support.
The growth of the platform economy presents new job opportunities, but also new challenges linked to the de-structuring of the work relationship between workers and companies. In platform work, tasks are offered, assigned and performed through an online platform, often functioning across borders and time zones. Online platform work allows workers to carry out tasks (for example, data entry, writing and editing, creative and multimedia work) on their electronic devices from any suitable location. On‑location platform work involves workers carrying out tasks in a specific physical location (for example, food delivery and transportation services), although they are still matched with their customers online.
EU employment law does not set rules on the working conditions and social rights of platform workers, who often fall into non-standard forms of employment. Even if you work mostly for one employer, as a platform worker you will likely be classified as ‘self-employed’, rather than as an employee. The situation also differs depending on which EU country you live in. As a result, many people working through digital labour platforms are in a precarious situation, facing poor working conditions and inadequate access to social protection. Platform workers often receive vague information about their working conditions, and may not be covered by national social security systems in cases of sickness, accident, redundancy or retirement. Some argue that businesses that save on social contribution costs by employing platform workers are competing unfairly, damaging the social safety net for everyone. Another concern is the digital control exercised by platforms (and other employers) over workers, using algorithms to assign tasks, and also to monitor, supervise, evaluate and impose sanctions. Often, such employers control every aspect of the work, without giving employees rights to employment benefits such as paid sick leave, annual leave or pensions.
A more recent – and massive – trend in the digital transition is teleworking. Previously used primarily by freelancers, teleworking underwent significant expansion during the COVID‑19 pandemic. The result was an unprecedented social experiment: according to one survey, 37 % of the EU population was teleworking in April 2020, compared with 5 % in 2017. During the pandemic, telework ensured continuity for many sectors and saved many people’s jobs. However, the rise of teleworking has accentuated existing digital divides between, for example, people whose jobs can and cannot be done remotely, workers with higher and lower digital skill levels, and between people living in rural and urban areas. While this new way of working can be welcome to workers trying to balance home and work life, it can also have undesirable effects on workers in terms of both workload and stress levels. New technologies enable workers to work anytime and anywhere, and this hyper-connectivity can lead to or exacerbate anxiety, fatigue, sleep deprivation, technology or work addiction, isolation, and burnout – symptoms referred to collectively as ‘technostress‘. Another problem is the tracking of employee presence and performance during working hours through digital software and applications. Such monitoring raises questions about how to balance legitimate business interests and the digital privacy of employees.
What is the EU doing?
Platform workers. In December 2021, the European Commission published a proposal for a new law to improve the working conditions of platform workers. The law aims to ensure people are granted the correct employment status, thus increasing access to workers’ benefits and rights. It also seeks to ensure transparency in the algorithms that platforms use to manage their workers. If adopted, the legislation should enhance transparency, traceability and awareness of developments in platform work, and improve enforcement of the applicable rules for everyone working through platforms, including those operating across EU national borders. The proposal is currently under discussion in the Parliament and the Council.
Teleworkers. In January 2021, the European Parliament called on the Commission to put forward a legislative proposal securing workers the right to disconnect. The aim is to improve worker health and work‑life balance by setting minimum requirements to limit the use of digital tools for professional purposes outside standard working hours. In June 2021, European Council conclusions on telework called on EU countries to consider developing national action plans to address the opportunities and risks relating to telework – including taking into account the issues teleworking poses to gender equality. They also recommended that countries establish or reinforce initiatives to strengthen workplace health and safety standards and inspections in view of the risks arising from telework.
Digital skills. The EU has developed a range of policies and initiatives to increase citizens’ digital skills. The new European skills agenda, adopted in July 2020, includes actions that will support the green and digital transitions. The agenda will also support individuals in their lifelong learning pathways by promoting upskilling, reskilling and increased recognition of skills by employers. The aims of the digital education action plan (2021-2027) include updating the European digital competence framework to include artificial intelligence and data-related skills, developing a European digital skills certificate, and creating a European digital education hub.
The way forward
Innovation will continue to speed up the process of digitalisation of our society and economy. An increasing number of connected devices, new kinds of digital interaction and new business models will drive the future of work. A 2021 European Commission communication suggests ways to harness the benefits of digitalisation, such as greater flexibility, while guaranteeing fair working conditions and respect for workers’ rights. EU national governments, regional and local authorities and social partners should work together to provide advice and guidance for platform workers, so that everyone has access to a clear set of rules that can be put in place across the EU.