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5th Mar 2024

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Protecting workers' rights throughout the AI revolution

  • The European Employment and Social Rights Forum brought together business leaders, academics, trade union leaders, and policymakers to discuss how AI is changing the world of work. (Photo: European Employment and Social Rights Forum)
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Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform economies and increase global GDP by trillions of euros over the next 10 years. At the same time, AI technologies present significant new challenges for workers' rights, including new forms of automation, workplace surveillance, and discrimination.

Labor disputes are already impacted by developments of AI in the workplace. For example, IndustriALL Europe has called for the use of AI and algorithmic systems to be included in collective bargaining agreements. The ongoing strike of Hollywood actors and writers, concerned about the ways in which AI will impact their work, is another example.

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To facilitate a public debate on the impact of AI on the world of work, the 2023 annual European Employment and Social Rights Forum took place on 16-17 November in Brussels and online. The theme of the event was 'AI and the world of work', and featured over 70 speakers with diverse backgrounds.

"With new technologies such as ChatGPT, work can be more efficient, faster, facilitated, and simplified", said Nicolas Schmit, EU commissioner for jobs and social rights. Nevertheless, "we need to ensure that workers profit from each new breakthrough. The biggest challenge is to establish a system where the gains made out of AI are distributed fairly".

A human-centric approach to AI

Comprehensive skills training and robust social support systems will be central to ensure that workers will be able to adapt to and benefit from the new technologies — a so-called 'human centric' approach to AI and regulation.

The Nobel laureate economist Prof. Christopher Pissarides recommended that instead of fighting technological change, "we need to accommodate and train the skills to help workers flourish". He continued to say that countries with robust social support systems will be able to "use AI beneficially to create good jobs and better lives".

In practice, this means ensuring that impactful decisions continue to be made by humans, rather than be automated.

While AI systems have the potential to provide highly personalized services for workers with disabilities, Maureen Piggott, the treasurer of the European Disability Forum, remarked that "the harsh reality is that disabled people have been left behind by the AI revolution".

The European Disability Forum has previously stated that AI technologies risk widening the digital skills gap in the EU.

To reap all of AI's potential benefits, a diverse set of stakeholders will have to be included in shaping how these technologies are developed and used in the workplace. More than ever, workers will have to be included in discussions to determine how new technologies are used.

Skills gaps in the twin transition

Earlier this year, the 2023 Employment and Social Developments in Europe annual review highlighted significant challenges in the EU labor market in response to the digital and green transitions. The report highlighted that these twin transitions are already presenting challenges for companies and workers.

Consider that despite the fact that 90% of professional roles currently require basic digital knowledge, while 42% of Europeans still lack digital skills.

Ben Butters, the CEO of Eurochambres, underlined this fact; companies across the EU are struggling to recruit employees with appropriate skills for the AI transition. He noted a need for both technical and transversal skills as AI becomes increasingly implemented on the work floor.

Making sure that training is available throughout workers' careers will be increasingly important in the future.

However, only providing trainings will not be enough to support workers. Esther Lynch, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), said that workers will need to be given the time and resources to complete these trainings as well.

Lynch reemphasized that workers must be part of the discussions determining how these new technologies get implemented in the workplace and that they will need to experience clear benefits from them.

The ways that AI will transform the world of work are not inevitable. Instead, they are the consequences of active deliberation and societal discussion.

Pioneering the regulation of AI

The EU is currently negotiating two pieces of groundbreaking legislation regulating AI: the AI Act and the Digital Platform Workers Directive.

The AI act, first proposed by the European Commission in 2021, will establish a regulatory framework to govern applications of AI according to their potential risks.

The Digital Platform Workers Directive will clarify the employment status of people working for digital platforms and to set rules on the use of AI in the workplace. Despite the directive containing meaningful protections for workers, recent reports have shown that the legislation might not prevent platform workers from automated "Robo-fires".

Although discussions are progressing on the two pieces of legislation, the AI act has recently hit a road-bump as France, Germany, and Italy are currently delaying negotiations. Kim van Sparrentak, MEP from the Netherlands, emphasized that legislation has been delayed significantly due to lobbying efforts by big tech firms, claiming that AI regulation could hurt the EU's competitive position in the global economy.

Regulating AI should however not be thought of as hampering innovation. Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the internal market: "setting clear rules doesn't slow down innovation. On the contrary, it provides guidelines for investment. Our goal is to ensure that our values are preserved and included in this AI revolution".

European Employment and Social Rights Forum wrap-up video.

Missed the 2023 EU social forum? Watch the wrap-up video and recordings of all of the forum's sessions here.

Author bio

The second edition of the European Employment and Social Rights Forum took place on 16-17 November 2023 at the Egg in Brussels and focused on the impact of AI on the world of work.

For 2 days, the event brought together more than 2200 participants and 74 speakers to assess the challenges and opportunities that artificial intelligence brings for the world of work and to explore ways in which we can ensure that nobody is left behind in the wake of these developments.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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