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15 July 2016
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Europe is preparing for digitalisation and automation of work

Bratislava (15 July 2016) - The informal two-day meeting of EU Member States’ ministers for employment and social policy (EPSCO) led by Slovak minister Ján Richter focused on social and technological challenges in the world of labour – demographic changes, migration and digitalisation. Social partners at European level were also present.

The population of the European Union is ageing, which means the number of economically active citizens is declining in proportion to the economically inactive. This will impact the labour market and social insurance systems in several areas such as work force availability, the need to learn new skills or preservation of social standards across Europe. At the same time, population ageing puts increased pressure on social insurance systems, sustainability of pension schemes, growing healthcare and occupational health and safety demands, but also on the need for work-related migration.

“The experience tells us that technological changes have two significant impacts: they eliminate certain jobs by replacing human work with work of robots and they change qualification requirements placed on workers in many professions or create new professions”.

J. Richter

EU Member States have reacted to a number of these factors by systematically reforming their policies. Ministers and international experts thus focused on the challenges and issues raised by the current trend towards digitalisation and automation and its impact on the labour market. The general consensus was that these phenomena will have significant implications both for businesses and employees. It is therefore necessary to monitor this development closely, and prepare for it both at the European and national levels. An indispensable role in this process is played by our social partners, employers and employee representatives, who still play a key role in today’s labour environment.

As observed by the Slovak Minister for Labour, Social Affairs and Family, Ján Richter: “The experience tells us that technological changes have two significant impacts: they eliminate certain jobs by replacing human work with work of robots and they change qualification requirements placed on workers in many professions or create new professions”. It is therefore necessary not only to predict which professions are likely to disappear, and which, on the other hand, will be newly created, but we also have to define which skills and knowledge will become obsolete because they will be taken over by robots and computer systems, and which skills and knowledge workers need to acquire to master new technologies.

The common ground of the meeting was that digitalisation and automation are no longer a far-off prospect, but rather already exist and are present in real time. Their advance cannot be stopped, hence the need to learn to properly understand how they work and function. If we are to master technological innovation processes, we need to analyse in detail impact of their implementation on labour relations, working conditions, social insurance systems, learning processes and qualifications. As explained by Marianne Thyssen, the European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility: “It is important to increase investments into skills. With the right skills people have a better chance of finding and keeping a job in a new labour market. Therefore, the European Commission has adopted New Skills Agenda for Europe“.

As part of the debate on automation, the ministers visited a modern, highly-automated workplace at Pečivárne Sereď I.D.C. Holding, a.s. – the largest Slovak producer of confectionery and pastries. The company is a clear illustration of how new technologies are being introduced into the labour process, and their impact on employment and changing skill requirements.

On Friday the ministers for employment and social affairs continued to debate the migration of a highly-skilled workforce and its impact on the future of the European labour market. According to the latest data from European labour monitoring, employment is now reaching pre-economic crisis levels, albeit with significant variations between individual Member States. The quality of employment is also changing, which merits the attention of policy makers and all social partners. A consequence of the changing employment structure is that an increasing number of people are working part-time or under temporary labour agreements, which weakens their social position.

"Technological developments bring new, unexpected challenges. New forms of labour management relations and new phenomena such as 'zero hour' contracts, 'on-call labour', 'bulk labour' and 'shared economy' require much greater flexibility on the part of employers. The social protection of employees, however, cannot be sacrificed merely in order to achieve flexibility," concluded Ján Richter, Slovak Minister for Labour, Social Affairs and Family.

The informal meeting of EU ministers for employment and social policy confirmed the pressing nature of the common topics discussed, and provided solid ground for finding shared European solutions.

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