“Digital Market or Digital Slavery” was the topic of a high-level panel debate organised by the Brussels Office of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB Europabüro), the Brussels Office of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour (AK Europa) and IG Metall. The tenor of the evening headed in a clear direction: admittedly, digitization and spread of online-platforms brought with them a multitude of opportunities and potentials. However, these have to go hand in hand with labour and social rights to ensure that change and productivity progress resulting from the digital transformation is developed and distributed fairly.
Walter Grahammer, Permanent Representative of Austria to the EU, welcomed the high-level panel, in particular Muna Duzdar, Austrian Secretary of State for Diversity, Public Service and Digitization as well as the guests, among them the Austrian Ambassador in Brussels Jürgen Meindl and MEPs Karoline Graswander-Hainz (SPÖ) and Evelyne Gebhard (SPD). Oliver Röpke (Austrian Trade Union Federation) also welcomed all attendees and was pleased that AK and ÖGB, building on last year's conference were able to make a further contribution to the subjects of digitization und crowdworking. Ingrid Steiner-Gashi, Brussels correspondent of the Austrian Newspaper “Kurier”, hosted the debate.
Muna Duzdar, State Secretary of State for Diversity, Public Service and Digitization, pointed out that digitization would not only be a subject matter for IT experts, but that it was a highly political topic. Austria would currently work on an overall strategy for dealing with digital change and wanted to establish concrete measures both at Austrian and European level. It was important to regulate platforms and working conditions accordingly and to look at the quality of newly created jobs: “The credo of freedom must not be allowed to be used as a means to deregulate the work environment”, said Duzdar. Qualification programmes, which are aimed at learning digital competencies both at school and at work, were urgently required.
Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), referred to the fact that working conditions overall were deteriorating. It was important, in particular in respect of platforms to classify these as employers a not to regard them, as frequently the case in self-definition, as pure intermediaries between supply and demand. After all, in some cases, platforms would specify in great detail how and in which time frame a job had to be completed. The recently published European Pillar of Social Rights would have the potential to determine fundamental labour and social standards. However, further efforts would be necessary. Apart from that, a change in work culture also had to take place, where permanent availability is not regarded as a prerequisite or as desirable.
Robert Fuß, crowdworking expert of IG Metall, emphasised that crowdworkers would often regard platform work as their only chance to participate in the labour market. However, the analyses of IG Metall also found that most crowdworkers are poorly paid and that they have no social protection. This would make it even more important for trade unions to have access to the so-called “solo self-employed” and for crowdworkers to enjoy comprehensive freedom of association, social protection, legal certainty and fair pay. However, in doing so, special laws should not create second class employees. Admittedly, digitization would change the framework conditions; however, platform workers should always be able to keep their dignity.
Michael Heiling, crowdworking expert of AK Vienna, compared platforms with former “notice boards”, which existed in break rooms of factories or at universities; however, due to advancing digitization they had become increasingly larger, impersonal, compartmentalized and more dynamic. This would push platform workers into competitive situations and asymmetric power structures between them and the platform companies. It was important to distinguish between profit-oriented platforms and those, which are aimed at the community. If a platform acts in a profit-oriented manner and if the “brokered good” is human labour it will actually act like an employer – even if platforms would try to disguise employment contracts by fancy terms such as “pre-boarding” and “on-boarding” (instead of “job interview”). In contrast to what is frequently suggested, platforms are not a free market place. In general, they are highly regulated to the last detail; however not by democratically legitimised institutions, but by the General Terms and Conditions of private platform operators.
The audience followed the discussion with great interest and had a discussion about further aspects of crowdworking. Hence, in view of the global dynamic of platforms, questions were raised regarding a European or even internationally organised trade union. It was also discussed how one could succeed in developing digital transformation in a fair and just way.