Digitalisation: more flexibility for some but less autonomy for others

DQP Final Conference

(26 September 2023) Digitalisation can deliver better work-life balance but the risks of greater control and monitoring of workers are significant. This is one of the key conclusions of a two-year research project on digitalisation in the public services that concluded with a conference in Brussels on 25 September.

The project – digiqu@lpub – was coordinated by the OSE research organisation and supported by EPSU. It covered eight countries – Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain – and focused on three sectors – public administration, hospitals and electricity.

Over 70 participants joined the conference in-person and online to debate the findings with several EPSU affiliates providing their reflections on the main benefits and challenges of digitalisation on their sectors.

In public administration, the big impact had been the massive switch to telework during the pandemic, however, the research suggested that other developments, namely restructuring to reduce costs was more of a concern. Indeed as Philippe Berhault of the UFFA-CFDT federation pointed out the French government saw digitalisation as primarily a cost-saving mechanism, with the finance ministry putting pressure on other parts of the government to speed up the digitalisation of their processes.

It was not so different in the hospital sector across the eight countries, where massive staff shortages were the biggest challenge, with unions concerned that digitalisation was often seen the primary solution to this problem. There was a broad recognition of the need for increased training to ensure that staff could make the most of new digital tools and processes but this was also hampered by staff shortages, adding to workloads and leaving workers with less time to get the training they need.

In the electricity sector, there was evidence of increased work intensity and less autonomy for workers. With algorithms increasingly used to set and allocate tasks, with some workers felt that systems were assumed to be efficient and infallible but were very often neither. As Lars B. Sørensen of the Danish DEF union said trade unionists were generally positive about the potential benefits of digitalisation but it had to be introduced in the right way, with proper consultation.

In a session on digitalisation and social dialogue, Richard Pond, collective bargaining policy officer at EPSU argued that often existing agreements on new technology and restructuring meant that trade unions already had the tools to tackle some of the main effects of digitalisation. In that sense, it was not so surprising that there were as yet very few examples of collective agreements on digitalisation. He added, however, that data rights and artificial intelligence were particular developments that needed a more specific response from trade unions.

A final panel brought together many of the themes that had been discussed during the day and featured EPSU general secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan, Ricardo Contreras (Research Manager at the Eurofound agency), Aïda Ponce Del Castillo, the digitalisation and AI expert at the European Trade Union Institute and Pauline Martin of the EUPAE central government employers’ organisation.

Jan Willem Goudriaan underlined the importance of public services as democratic institutions and expressed concern that big tech companies had a dominant role, particularly in areas like the provision of cloud services. He argued that public sector bodies needed to take measures to counterbalance this.

This was taken up by Pauline Martin of the EUPAE central government employers’ organisation who noted that their sector social dialogue agreement on digitalisation with EPSU tried to address this by including articles on the need to regulate outsourcing and ensure that the public sector retained and increased high-level digital skills.

Aïda Ponce Del Castillo stressed that trade unions really needed to get on top of the data rights question and that the General Data Protection Regulation was a powerful tool that they should do more to fully exploit. Her other major worry was the spread of AI across all sectors and that trade unions had a major challenge to stay alert to all the various uses of AI, how it was introduced, who had developed it, how it was being applied and what were the outcomes.

The country reports, policy briefs and other outputs from the project can be found on the digiqu@lpub website.

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