Trade union responses to digitalisation in the services sector  

Trade union responses to digitalisation in the services sector   

Digitalisation is impacting workers in the services sectors. Self-scanners at supermarkets have become commonplace, just as chatbots have become a part of client services. Partial automation has made its way into cleaning, security, care and is driving self-employment for workers within certain personal and professional services. People’s work tasks, competences required and employment levels are all direclty impacted.

Without a collective response to those challenges, digitalisation risks to sustain and confirm existing inequalities between workers and in society. It is only through collective bargaining and trade union organizing that equity can be guaranteed.

But how do we do this? What are the main challenges and how can trade unions best respond through them? To answer these questions, UNI Europa ran an EU financed project titled: “Shaping the future of work in a digitalized services industry through social dialogue” between 2019 and 2021.

The objective of the project was to look in-depth at specific topics related to the future of work, and in particular as regards the impact on social dialogue and collective bargaining at national and European level on three main topics: 1) self-employment; 2) skills; and 3) restructuring processes.

1.       Self-Employment

Increasingly, workers in the services sector are employed as freelancers and self-employed. This evolution poses challenges in terms of working conditions and collective bargaining rights. To discuss those issues, a research report was commissioned (EN, FR, DE), a workshop was organized in Rome in October 2019; and an online webinar in March 2021 (Report and executive summary).

Organising with self-employed workers

“Freelancers are workers and as such they too should enjoy the advantages of collective bargaining.” – Oliver Roethig. Many unions organise with self-employed workers. We are getting together to discuss approaches that are delivering decent work for them and their fellow workers.

Posted by UNI Europa on Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The project as such provided necessary insights that will be used in the upcoming policy discussions on the EU Commissions’ “draft guidelines on collective bargaining of self-employed”.

2.       Life-long learning

Digital services means working with different technologies and entails to large and small changes in the work tasks of services workers. This poses challenges in terms of skills and the need for lifelong learning. These challenges were investigated through a research report (EN, FR, DE), a workshop was organized in Prague in November 2019; and an online webinar in March 2021 (Report and executive summary).

The project as such pointed to the need for skill development and the trade union involvement in this. At the same time, the topic remains contentious also among workers and there is a risk that training budgets disproportionally go to already high skilled workers. Collective bargaining and especially multi-employer collective bargaining are apt for guaranteeing equal access to training and proper funding.

3.       Restructuring

It just doesn’t stop anymore. The digitalization of the services sectors seems to lead to a state of permanent restructuring. In such a context, trade union strategies need to be adapted to ensure effective social dialogue and collective bargaining.

To discuss these issues, the project commissioned a research report (EN, FR, DE), convened a workshop in Dublin in February 2020; and an online webinar in March 2021 (Report and executive summary).

In such a context, the challenge is to anticipate restructuring and proactively organize workers, yet doing so is far from straightforward.

Restructuring: union approaches to protect workers’ interests

When workers don’t have a voice in company restructuring processes, it often results in increased workloads & pressure on employees’ mental health or even lay-offs. Workers can change that. By acting together, they can have a strong say & ensure changes deliver for them.

Posted by UNI Europa on Tuesday, November 16, 2021


4.       Final conference

The final results and conclusions were presented and disseminated at the 2-day final conference (16 and 17 November 2021 – online) including additional input from outside experts:

The conference report is available in English, French, and German. The executive summary is available in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.



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