Reflections on the Work of the Future


The Hans Böckler Foundation hosted the LABOR.A 2018 – Platform Work of the Future – Conference in Berlin on 13 September with 28 partners from politics, labour and business. SALDRU research affiliate, Dr. Ruediger Helm, was in attendance and compiled this comprehensive report of the sessions he attended. Whilst the conference focused on the future of work in the German context, there may be lessons to be drawn for a global audience.

The Hans Böckler Foundation (HBS) deals with co-determination, research linked to the world of work and the support of students on behalf of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB). There are eight trade unions under the umbrella of the DGB representing the interests of over 5,9 million people. This makes the DGB the largest trade union confederation in Germany by far and one of the biggest national confederations of trade unions worldwide. Experts from various specialities, including theory and practice, labour, politics and business, attended the conference.

The conference, which served as a follow-up on the recommendations and proposals from the “Commission on the Work of the Future” published by the HBS in 2017, provided food for thought for the subsequent discussion on the future of work. The recommendations of the Commission, “Let’s Transform Work”, comprise 55 thought-provoking impulses. An English version of the highly recommended publication was presented on the LABOR.A as well, and can be downloaded (PDF).

The summit, which offered parallel panels on various topics related to the theme, was introduced by HBS’ director, Michael Guggemos. He pointed out that substantial technological change opens up new prospects to influence working conditions and the relationship between capital and labour. “Corridors for shaping open up now,” Guggemos said.


The event was opened by a panel that framed the conference by formulating its expectations. Panellists comprised the chairman of the German metal workers trade union (IG Metall), Jörg Hofmann; the head of department on Digitalisation and the World of Work of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS), Dr. Julia Borggräfe; the substitute professor for technology studies at the University St Gallen (Switzerland) and author of the book “False Promises: Growth in the Digital Capitalism” (Falsche Versprechen: Wachstum im digitalen Kapitalismus), Philipp Staab.

“Who owns the digital infrastructure?” Burggräfe asked. She highlighted the need to organise counter-models and argued that this is now possible by public procurement due to the development of the new 5G-Network technology, which will replace LTE Networks. Public procurement of 5G networks and electric networks allow for regulatory sovereignty to stay in a country.

Burggräfe also said that organisations will become more fluid. For example, IBM now focuses on IT project management work and its organisational form has become more agile. In this regard, what needs to be examined is what happens both internally and externally in an organisation (e.g. service contracts and agency work). In this context, to what extent does regulation and law last? A key challenge is the legal spin-off as well as the transformation of work from A to B.

Another interesting point that emerged was that of the readiness of further education providers. Education providers often don’t know in what direction education should go. A new debate on education is needed. Big companies have some ideas, but middle and smaller enterprises are not prepared. In this regard, how can strategic personnel development be done? It’s not enough to simply impart technical knowledge. What is required is blended learning. Education should also encompass resilience, social skills and intrinsic motivation. According to the educational sciences, important skills like self-regulation are learned at an early stage. Self-regulation is necessary for the work of the future. For example, the ability to turn off one’s cell phone and not check emails or the internet.

Staab added that self-leadership skills are increasingly required, which meet specifically in the industrial sector’s established hierarchies. In classical hierarchies, a chain of commands exists. However, future employees will need more self-leadership skills, as important decisions will have to be made faster. For this reason, self-leadership skills of employees will be crucial. This will result in a more self-confident staff, which cannot be managed by conventional methods. This needs to be balanced out. Executives will need to learn to communicate internally to manage a staff that is more self-confident.

Hofmann talked about how many steps are reasonable for humans to adapt? For someone who has already worked for 30 years, are such steps reasonable?

He argued that learning needs to be an integrated part of employment. In this regard, there are four components – learning opportunities, time for learning, consultation and income. These must be up to standard, he said.

Moreover, how can the profile of a person be determined? The career of a mechanic in a large corporation happens without any profiling. How can an appreciative qualification concept be designed? Income remains the core issue. Education for professionals and further orientation should not be combined with job losses. Hofmann recommends collaboration with vocational schools and universities, as regional further training centres. We need to think about the work of the future holistically and this holistic thinking needs to be sophisticated (diverse).

When we look at the recent phases of transformation, the key word of today is “platform”. Flat hierarchies, project work and related to that, peripheries will dissolve social connections. Amazon works with “Two-Pizza-Teams”, which means only two persons work on a task. The desolation of social integration will reach core areas of companies specifically in the new economy. In the future, workers may need a supporting leg and a free leg (stability and agility). By looking at the micro level of digitalisation, it becomes evident what parts of work will disappear and what will remain.

Close the Gender Pay Gap

Every technological change creates the opportunity to influence the transition. It is still an issue that occupations performed predominantly by women are paid significantly less then occupations, which are predominantly performed by man. The work of the future should be gender neutral.

Each technological step allows for the rethinking of gender relations. It allows overcoming disproportionate income differentials like the gender pay gap. For example, the persisting gender pay gap in Germany should be addressed in the transformation process. With digitalisation, occupations also change.

Tools to compare work and to determine work of equal value were discussed (for example, check the “Comparable Worth” Index). When computers were introduced, it was hoped that the gender related division of labour will be overcome. This did not happen. In this regard, tools to compare gender-neutral work of the future need to be developed. What are the demands of the work of the future? To work this out, a similarity-matrix can be developed.

Standards for a New World of Work: Eight Ideas

1) Platform Labour Legislation

Martin Risak, professor at the University of Vienna, introduced a proposal for a national platform labour legislation as well as a European Union platform labour law directive. The reason for the initiative is that platform work is a three-party relationship. Platform work carries in itself a high risk of bogus self-employment and the digital reputation of the click workers is neither transparent nor regulated.

The centrepiece of his proposal is the presumption of an employment relationship and a checklist of criteria, which indicates the employment relationship. Some of those criteria are connected with an irrefutable presumption of an employment relationship. The legislation should also extend to quasi-subordinate (para-subordinate) employment and designate prohibited contract clauses.

Some platform workers are assessed by level systems of the platform. Others use a system of up to five stars. What most of these reputation systems have in common is that they are non-transparent. However, the evaluation can be crucial for an Uber driver. Risak argued that his legal concept should include a “platform reputation system” that is transparent and correctable for click workers. The “reputation” also needs to be portable to a new workplace. Reputation is a skill (or profile) in the digital future, which needs to be transferable to a new employer.

2) Platform Economy Repository

Barbara Gerstenberger, head of the research area “Working Life” at Eurofund, introduced a tool for the development of standards on the European level. Eurofound developed a search engine, which is focussed on platform work. In 2013, just 15 relevant publications, articles, court cases, initiatives and other outputs could be found. But, in the middle of 2018, there were more than 600. These documents can be found on the “Platform economy database” of Eurofound. The tool allows a search by free text, given keywords like taxation, income liability or social security. The search is possible by region, employer, platform sector, platform company, by platform work typology, record-type like court ruling, and article or case-study. It is also possible by mythology, language, availability, and a combination out of the criteria, one may choose.

Gerstenberger pointed out that the tool’s information may become more helpful with the increase of material or content. The Platform Economy Database evaluates the texts deposited in the database. For all texts, regardless of its language, an English abstract can be found.

The website documents initiatives on organising or protests. Eurofound wants to support research initiatives and legislation with the database. It analysed the platform work and elaborated typologies for this new form of labour. This includes definitions as well as a typology of ten different kinds of platform work and also a typology of the different sectors and their specifics.

3) Digital Social Security

Enzo Weber, professor at the University of Regensburg, and head of the research department of the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), presented his concept for social security for platform workers. The number of platform workers is still low, but not irrelevant. Weber suggests a Digital Social Security (DSS) account for platform workers.

On the platform, all relevant information is collected. For example, Uber has the data of its drivers, their address, turnover and bank details as well as all relevant data of the passengers. Uber is able to manage all relevant financial transactions around their business. The platform has all the data of the workers, the platform company, the clients and the turnover.

A platform that can charge fees can also withhold social security contributions. So, a percentage from the turnover of every platform worker could be transferred by the platform into the DSS-account. Since most of the platform companies have an international footprint, the DSS-account could be linked to an international organisation like the ILO or the World Bank. For the platform worker, the social security system at his or her domicile or place of work would be relevant. From the DSS-account the individual social security contributions could be transferred to the relevant nations according to the residence or place of work depending on the decision on what would be most relevant. Weber said that the place of residence may be easier, since platform work could be very mobile. However, making the platform companies responsible for the transfer of the social security contributions would mean defeating the platform economy with its own arguments.

4) Blockchain Technology to Ensure the Rule of Law

Andreja Schneider-Dörr, a PhD law scholar of the HBS, explained how blockchain technology could be used to achieve more fairness on the internet. The platform unifies everything negative in itself. The innovation of platform technology seems to be to bypass law most effectively. In contrast to this, blockchain technology allows decentralised data systems. What’s desirable for the society needs to be fed into the blockchain technology. A decentralised data system, like blockchain can break up central power.

The blockchain technology can also create trust, as a programmer remains in charge of his or her data. The process of negotiation and data transfer can be discussed bilaterally. Schneider-Dörr explained that in this context blockchain technology can be compared to a farm stall. It allows direct marketing and avoids the dependency on large platform monopolies.

Platform technology needs a better version of itself and this is blockchain technology, Schneider-Dörr argued. Blockchain technology can ensure the rule of law. The data belongs to the workers and algorithms can back data protection in blockchain technology.

5) Revitalize Labour Inspectors

Markus Helfen, professor at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, talked about the effective enforcement of labour standards in the platform economy. Helfen stated that the platform economy needs to be understood in a broader context. Today, one can book a flight on the internet, take the plane and reach a destination without having met any employee from the airline. Also, in a hospital, it could happen that one gets the wrong food or medication. The hospital can’t control this when the service is carried out by an independent service provider. In these cases, trade unions have less presence and are often not able to enforce labour standards. The corporate landscape of today is dominated by a system of organised irresponsibility.

Labour inspectors were quite an effective system in the past. Austerity measures, changes of the labour inspector structure, the reduction of competences and the split of various authorities weakened the system. In addition, the change of the corporate structure calls for new strong structures. In Germany, the labour inspectorate (Gewerbeaufsicht), the inspection of the customs agency (Zollinspektion) and the employer’s liability insurance association (Berufsgenossenschaften) are responsible for the enforcement of labour standards. The system is increasingly ineffective due to poor resources, lack of competences and an unfavourable set-up, specifically, on these new forms of labour. Helfen recommends putting the system on a new organisational foundation with better resources to make labour standards enforceable again. A revitalised system of labour inspectors can do that.

6) Self-Employed Discover Collectiveness

Hans-Jörg Pongratz, professor at the University of Munich, explained his research on self-employed persons. Solo-self-employed people don’t see themselves as a group due to status considerations and the lack of an explicit counterpart, but politics sees them as a group. Trade unions also identify solo-self-employed people, as a group whose income is in need of protection.

Pongratz’s research question was, “Where is the common interest of solo-self-employed workers and employees?” In 1958, farm machinery cooperatives (Mashinenringe) were founded. Not only are farm machines used jointly, but members of the cooperative also represent each other in cases of sickness and beyond that, in other difficult situations. It is a concept that follows the basic principle of solidarity. Pongratz calls for the advancement of action research together with solo-self-employed people. Collective consciousness, focuses on the fact that what most solo-self-employed people and employees have in common, is that they are dependent on their ability to work. Both can sell nothing but their manpower.

7) A Worker Lives from His or Her Labour

Veronika Mirschl, head of the department of the self-employed at the trade union ver.di, called for cooperation instead of competition. Self-employed workers have increased disruptions in their working lives. The focus is often on individual interests and self-employed persons often see the reason for failure in themselves and not in the market or other unfavourable circumstances. The market is often a black box for them and full of social risks. A case of illness can cause the loss of an important client.

Cooperation instead of competition: Employees and solo-self-employed workers both have to work and live from their manpower. Mirschl promotes a consistent definition of a working person. A worker is one who has to live from his or her manpower. Concepts and approaches for a fair share, decent pay, profit participation, and redistribution could be based on that. With a focus on the common good, transparency and solidarity systems, social systems could be developed. Solidarity systems calculate contributions according to the individual income. It should be financed with an employer client contribution. Health insurance, nursing care insurance and labour insurance could be developed further and include all who depend on their work ability.

8) Organise the Driver

Micha Heilmann, head of the capital office and legal department of the trade union NGG (the German FAWU) talked about trade union work and digital change. Drivers have no common place to meet in the new digital world. No plant exists, but self-organising of raiders happens. Trade unions can learn a lot about these new challenges by learning through listening. The prioritisation needs to be done by the workers, as the parties concerned. The crucial factor for organising is communication and networking. NGG organises the food delivery workers of the transport platform sector. The campaign “Supplying at the Limit” (Liefern am Limit), is organised by the platform workers and the NGG works with them, as well. Being supportive is the willingness to try new things and accept volatile evolutions.

Heilmann’s advice was to “think new thoughts”. How might the right of access of trade unions and worker representatives be formed in the digital century? The access to data is mostly discussed from the perspective of data protection. In the platform economy, workers cannot contact other workers since no common facilities exist. There is a tension between data protection and the right to organise. What about the access to communication needs of the workers? And last but not least, antitrust law need to be rethought under the need for social security.

After the introductory panel, there were many parallel discussions. Various information desks on the different topics also allowed discussions with experts. This report reflects the panels I visited. However, the topic, in general, is both challenging and fascinating at the same time.

Dr. Ruediger Helm is a SALDRU research affiliate and a self-employed German lawyer based in South Africa. Helm has a PhD in economics and social sciences from Hamburg University, Germany.