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Gig economy necessitates a new charter of labour rights – expert

Depending on the country, between 12% and 20% of workers have some experience of working via gig economy platforms, according to Prof. Ursula Huws. Image credit – Flickr/ home thods

We need a new bill of rights to absorb the changes brought about by the gig economy, or using apps and websites to arrange casual jobs, which are now spreading to other areas of work, according to an international labour expert speaking at a conference on the future of work.

‘We need a new charter or bill of workers’ rights, which includes a whole lot of new rights that weren’t envisaged in the middle of the 20th century,’ said Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

She was speaking at an event on 5 February in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss ethical issues arising in the new world of work that is being ushered in by digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence.

Online platforms that match workers with tasks – known variously as the gig economy, platform economy or crowd working – are affecting the nature of work in other parts of the economy, according to Prof. Huws, who has carried out research in seven European countries (UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy) on the use of such platforms.

She found that, depending on the country, between 12% and 20% of workers have some experience of working via platforms, but only one in 40 people get more than half their income this way, indicating that most people who use platforms are supplementing their income from other types of work.

Nevertheless, she said that some features of the gig economy – such as the expectation to be available and responsive at all times and the use of customer ratings – are become widespread in other parts of the economy.

‘About a third of people currently experiencing poverty in the European Union are actually in work.’

Amana Ferro, European Anti-Poverty Network, Belgium

Prof. Huws said that a new charter of rights would include ‘the obvious rights, like health and safety and the right to a minimum wage … but also things like rights for data protection, rights to challenge negative customer ratings, rights to challenge arbitrary suspensions (from platforms).’

The one-day event was designed to look at the future of work and how it can fit with European values of justice, dignity and solidarity. It was organised by the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), an independent body tasked with providing the EU with opinions on the ethical aspects of science and new technologies to shape policy and legislation. The conference discussions will feed into a report due to be published in the summer.

Prof. Christiane Woopen, chair of the EGE, said work shapes a major part of people’s lives and wellbeing so it is essential to consider the ethical issues and social impact of new technologies. ‘The EGE deems it very important that ethics is coming before technology. In the end, the future of work is the future of society. We have to ask which values and principles are guiding us in shaping this future,’ she said.

New types of employment

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has categorised nine new types of employment based on a Europe-wide mapping exercise. These include employee sharing, where a worker is jointly hired by a group of employers, casual work, where an employer is not obliged to regularly provide work to the employee but calls them in on demand, and collaborative employment, where freelancers cooperate to overcome limitations of size.

Irene Mandl, head of the employment research unit at Eurofound in Ireland, told the event that while the traditional model of a one-to-one relationship between employer and employee is currently still the standard model across Europe, there is an increasing variety of the types of work people do and it’s redefining what a job is.

She also pointed out that a variety of experiences were contained within the category of self-employed workers. While, for many people, self-employment is a choice that gives them sustainable work and a good income, around a quarter of self-employed people are in that situation out of necessity and are in a precarious position, with low levels of security, low incomes and low autonomy.

One of the main themes of the conference raised was how to marry these new patterns of work with social protection.

Prof. Huws pointed out that Europe’s existing models are outdated. ‘If you look at the social security system, when you have a very high proportion of workers who don’t know from what hour or day to the next, if or when they’re going to be working, how do you have a social security system that’s based on either you’re working or you’re not working?’

Amana Ferro from the European Anti-Poverty Network in Belgium said that many people fall down the gap between work and unemployment. ‘This is the shocking statistic: about a third of people currently experiencing poverty in the European Union are actually in work.’

‘Work is not necessarily the best route out of poverty. Quality work is, for those who can work. Work that provides an adequate income, that provides stable contracts, that provides employment rights and social protection.’

Automation

The debate on the future of work is being driven by some of today’s major societal shifts including an ageing population and the impact of automation, digitalisation and the use of artificial intelligence on people’s jobs.

Although 72% of the European public are worried that robots will take their jobs, according to a Eurobarometer survey, the conference heard that the reality is more nuanced.

While automation is likely to take over a lot of routine work in many professions – from assembling car doors on production lines to analysing X-rays in hospitals – the view is that this will free up humans to concentrate on areas where robots fall short, such as emotional intelligence, critical decision-making, value judgements and caring.

The conference also heard that ensuring people have the skills for the future of work is difficult, as many jobs that will be around in 20 years do not yet exist.

However, Véronique Willems from the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, also in Belgium, said the focus should instead be on helping people respond to change.

‘I would like to get away from (talking about) low-skilled work or low-skilled persons, because even a low-skilled person can have huge amount of adaptability and have no problems (adapting) to the digital era. I think we need to … focus on those who have less adaptability.’

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The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE)

The EGE is an advisory body tasked with exploring ethical questions arising from science and new technologies and is under the direct supervision of the EU’s research, science and innovation commissioner, Carlos Moedas.

It is a multidisciplinary group of 15 academics drawn from the fields of natural and social sciences, philosophy, ethics and law. Some of the areas they have covered previously include synthetic biology, surveillance and animal cloning.

The EGE is due to publish a statement on the ethics of artificial intelligence and robots in the coming weeks and will publish its opinion on the future of work later in 2018.