Using collective bargaining to improve working conditions in the digital transformation of public services

Digitalisation - keyboard photo

(19 October 2018) Digitalisation is having a major impact on jobs and job content across the public services. Trade unionists representing public service workers met in Berlin at the end of June to debate the challenges, both positive and negative, that are facing workers and citizens.

Whether in the form of job cuts or transformation of job content, public services are facing significant disruption. The UNSA civil service union in France estimates that between 3% and 8% of staff (40,000 to 110,000 workers) will be affected in the near future, particularly administrative and technical occupations. The Unite multi-sector union in the UK believes that more than 230,000 of its 1.4 million members could lose their jobs to automation by 2035 with workers most at risk in health and local government.

However, this is not just a question of speculating about the future. The process is already well underway and in the Netherlands, the FNV trade union reports that 1500 mainly lower skilled jobs out of a total of 15000 were cut as a result of the digitalisation of legal services.

This restructuring comes at a time when austerity continues to have an impact with some governments implementing major cuts to the public service workforce. In France, President Macron's government has a plan to reduce civil service numbers by 120,000 by 2022 while in the UK, deep and sustained austerity measures have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs cut in central but particularly in local government.

However, there is also the potential for workers to benefit from digital change as some of the most standardised and repetitive elements of their jobs can be taken on by machines. There is also the prospect of new forms of work as digital jobs are created. The key question is how trade unions can ensure such positive outcomes by trying to regulate the process of job destruction and creation and have a role in influencing the content of new jobs and the provision of training necessary to carry them out effectively.

These issues were central to the debates between the 55 representatives of 35 public service unions from 15 countries and the European level that met in Berlin on 26-27 June. The conference was organised jointly by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), Ver.di the Germany services union and the largest representing workers in the public services and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

In attachment you will find the report of this seminar that is also a useful guidance on the reflection that trade unions are doing to represent and fight for worker’s right even in time of technological and digital disruption of public service. The report also contains some useful elements and proposal that EPSU will implement in its future work.

More details about the seminar and here for a short report and the presentations.

Full report of the seminar (EN, FR, DE, ES, IT)