At the Digital Summit, Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Hubertus Heil repeatedly uttered his support for socially responsible regulation of the digital working world, in particular the platform economy. Whenever digital technologies and working methods are used, the focus must be on people’s well-being.
No matter whether it is videoconferencing from home or some other location, ordering dinner online, or using apps to make payments, our daily lives are becoming increasingly digital. At the same time, most online tools make life easier by improving efficiency and/or convenience. But can the digital transformation also lead to greater sustainability? This is the question that was explored at last year’s Digital Summit, which was held on 30 November and 1 December 2020. Back in 2015 the global community adopted the UN 2030 Agenda, thus committing itself to 17 goals for socially, economically, and ecologically responsible development. These also affect the working world. Looking ahead over the next few years, one decisive question will therefore concern the ways in which we can make (digital) work fairer and hence more sustainable.
Accordingly, the Policy Lab primarily focused on the current changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was in light of the fact that the most tangible consequence for most employees of the pandemic-driven boost to digitalisation is that they are now more likely to be working from their own homes. What is striking is that experience so far has been predominantly favourable despite the frequent additional burdens arising from childcare needs at home. According to a study by health insurance fund DAK, more than 75 per cent of employees would welcome the opportunity of being able to work from home or on a mobile basis regularly even after the crisis. It has become evident that “people are not any less productive than at the office when they are working from home,” Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Hubertus Heil stressed during a session entitled “Change driven by coronavirus and digitalisation: working from home, platform work, etc.”, in which Christiane Benner (IG Metall) and Angelique Renkhoff-Mücke (WAREMA Renkhoff SE and a member of the BDA Digital Council) also participated.
A modern legal framework is required for working from home
Rules are required to give employers as well as employees a reliable post-pandemic framework for mobile working, while the gaps in the protection of mobile workers must be filled. For example, employees working at home who collect their children from the nursery are not insured on their route to and from the day-care centre. With a new bill, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) wants to create a framework for mobile work without, however, seeking to regulate it comprehensively. The purpose is to improve employee protection without overburdening companies. Scope is to remain for arrangements under collective agreements and company rules. “We are seeking pragmatic solutions,” Heil emphasised. Thus, in addition to improved protection and insurance cover, employees are to be given a stronger negotiating position in the future, namely the right to discuss with the employer matters pertaining to regular mobile work, e.g. in their own homes. “Companies will now no longer be allowed to reject this request outright but must clearly explain why mobile working is not viable for operational reasons,” Minister Heil explained in a conversation with the representatives of the social partners. He also highlighted the importance of the legal requirements with respect to working hours in mobile work settings so that employees can draw a clear line between work and their private lives.
“When you’re working from home, you also need to be able to clock off for the day."
Platform workers must be able to work well and safely
However, the pandemic has not only led to a situation in which typical office work is increasingly being performed at home. In addition, digital business models have grown in importance significantly since the outbreak of the pandemic. Food delivery services in particular have benefited from the constraints imposed on public life, while ride-hailing services and household or creative activities are increasingly being organised via online platforms. The BMAS wants to help companies to leverage the potential offered by the platform economy but is also committed to ensuring that this is done within a reliable regulatory framework. In particular, this is to benefit the solo self-employed who are assigned work on or via platforms. One of the core concerns of BMAS is to establish a level playing field between platform workers and operators. For this reason, it wants to give solo self-employed platform workers the possibility of organising themselves collectively and of jointly negotiating the basic elements of their activities with the platforms, said Minister Heil in a conversation with platform operator Dr Arne Sigge and the solo self-employed copywriter Irina Kretschmer.
As solo self-employed platform workers often cannot provide for old age on their own from the amounts they earn from platform-working, they are to be included in the statutory pension insurance system, with the platforms to cover a part of the contributions, Minister Heil stated at the Digital Summit. This is because solo self-employed platform workers currently do not have sufficient provisions for old age and are not protected adequately. The BMAS has tabled a key issues paper entitled “Fair work in the platform economy” to improve the overall situation for solo self-employed platform workers and to simultaneously create legal certainty for platform operators.
The use and development of AI must be trustworthy
Digitalisation is making swift progress even regardless of the coronavirus crisis. In addition to recent changes triggered by the pandemic, other sessions organised by the BMAS at the Digital Summit focused on the development and use of Artificial Intelligence. “AI is already being used widely in the working world,” stressed Julia Borggräfe, who heads the Department for Digitalisation and the Working World, during a panel discussion entitled “Rules for the use of AI”. In addition to creating a Europe-wide legal framework, it is crucial to expand employees’ abilities to work with new technologies. To this end, State Secretary Björn Böhning presented at the Digital Summit the “Future Centres (AI)” funding programme, which is now offered across Germany. It primarily seeks to support employees of SMEs in the use of digital technologies and AI-based systems.
As Borggräfe emphasised, this calls for effective regulation of AI that places people’s needs at its core. The creation of the necessary capacities and skills for implementing a future regulatory framework for AI also forms part of the updated AI strategy, which was adopted by the Federal Cabinet on 2 December.
The panels of the BMAS at the 2020 Digital Summit
The panel entitled “Rules for the use of AI” with Dr Julia Borggräfe, Head of the Department for Digitalisation and the Working World, BMAS, among others.
The panel entitled “AI – the pitch for the funding programmes” with State Secretary Björn Böhning, BMAS, among others.
The panel entitled “Change driven by coronavirus and digitalisation: working from home, platform work, etc.” with Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Hubertus Heil, among others.
The panels were held in German.