Thomas Klikauer

While the original idea of digital labour may well come from the 1960s-1970s’ Italian workerist or Operaismo movement, today, in virtually all advanced economies, digital labour has made an appearance since the early 2000s.

One might understand digital labour as being defined as the production of surplus value through an interaction between a worker on the one hand, and information and communication technologies (ICT), such as digital platforms and even artificial intelligence, on the other hand.

Examples of digital labour include such online labour platforms, micro-working, and user-generated data for digital platforms, such as the so-called (read: not really) social media run by extremely powerful corporations. The term digital labour describes work that encompasses a variety of online tasks. Digital labour can generate income for individuals and without the limitations of physical barriers.

To measure a country’s digital economy, such as Germany’s, for example, the EU has developed what it calls DESI – a digital economy and society index. DESI is based on five elements:

  1. connectivity (fixed and mobile broadband, prices); 
  2. human capital (Internet use, basic and advanced digital skills); 
  3. the use of Internet services (the use of content, communication, online transactions); 
  4. integration of digital technology (business digitalization); and 
  5. digital public services (e.g. e-government). 

On this scale, Germany sits at 54.1 compared to Denmark’s 70.1, Greece’s 32 9, and the EU average of 50.7. In other words, Germany’s digital economy is a little bit above average in the EU. Despite Germany being seen as in the middle when it comes to digitalization, the introduction of IT, online system, platform work, etc. has changed work in Germany considerably. So much so that Germany’s trade union peak body – the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) – recently investigated these changes. The following reports on these – often rather statistical – findings.

The investigation of Germany’s trade unions on industrial processes, production, workers’ qualifications, and R&D, showed that the most advanced sectors using digital labour were – not really surprisingly – Germany’s information and technology sector. It was followed by Germany’s €380bn strong car industry and its machine tool industry.  Strangely, the existence of digital labour remains rather rare in Germany’s logistics’ industry.

When looking from the union-inspired concept of Good Work, German digital workers have indeed experienced a steady improvement in working conditions, a lowering of workplace stress, and the improvement in job security and income over the last decade.

As one might have expected, digitalization enabled workers with college and university degrees to work from home (71%). These workers use new software and Apps (78%), as well as new hardware (37%). 

Yet, digitalization has also led to changes in workplace contacts among workers (78%), as well as in organizational communications (79%). The move to digital work impacted the least on unskilled and manual labour and on workers with only limited vocational skills, as well as those with basic technical training gained at industrial colleges.

Meanwhile, 35% of Germany’s digital labour working in the office felt that the move to online communication (Skype, Zoom, etc.) has led to more stress, while 57% experienced no change, and 8% said, it has led to less stress. Yet, 22% also said that teleconferencing had replace personal contact to a high degree, while 20% reported that this was very much the case.

While 83% of all German digital workers attended their place of work throughout 2020 and 2021, by the end of this period, only 60% did so – more people moved into home office (read: the kitchen table). Simultaneously, the percentage of those working from home (WFH) increased from 4% to 24%, and from 13% to 14% even for those who always had this sort of workplace flexibility. At the middle and lower management level, 63% of female worker utilized working from home, while only 47% of male managers were able to do so. 

Interestingly, 38% of young digital workers believe that digitalization will improve work while 44% noted that digitalization had no impact.  Simultaneously, just 5% believe it will make working conditions worse. Yet. 54.5% also thought that digitalization and automation will become more important in the future. Meanwhile, 34.2% of those currently undertaking Germany’s standard apprenticeship said that digital technologies have become part of their training.

At the same time, German digital workers are reserved about the use of something called HR analytics. HR analytics is the collection and application of data to improve business outcomes. HR analytics delivers data-driven insights that inform HR decisions and improve workforce processes. That is the semi-official definition. Yet, Germany’s digital workers are also hesitant about HR analytics. They do so for four reasons:

  1. HR managers themselves are overwhelmed by the flood of data;
  2. the data produced by HR analytics are inconsistent and in some cases even useless;
  3. there is a strong resistance against HR analytics particularly from being digital because they understand the flaws of the entire setup questioning the data itself; and finally,
  4. HR analytics simply highlights some trends but not much more.

When it comes to on-the-job training during the introduction of digital technologies, a whopping 82% said that they had received only informal training on the use of IT, computer hardware, and digital communication. Among those, 69% said that they had to learn most of it through trial-&-error. And, 65% also said that they received help from other workers to manage management’s demand to use digital technology.

In any case, the introduction and use of IT in German companies is also an issue for Germany’s strong – and legally regulated – system of workplace representation, known as works councils. This system covers over 90% of all German companies with more than 500 employees and about ½ of all companies employing between 50 and 500 workers. 

Many of these works councils report, for example, that 66% of all employees in Germany’s energy sector have only received limited training on digitalization, in logistics it is 43%, in hospitality it is 12%, and in the construction industry, it is merely 11%. In other words, German management in those industries are lagging behind.

At the same time, just 30% of those who are self-employed, working in the field of academia, and in Germany’s growing service industry, feel that they are well-qualified to deal with digitalization. In Germany’s IT and communication industry, this increases slightly to 34%, while in Germany’s finance, banking, and insurance sector, it reaches 58%. 

Works councillors also report that a colossal 94% of companies with more than 250 workers have invested in digitalization since the beginning of the Corona pandemic in 2020.  In companies employing between 50 and 249 workers, that number still reaches 79%.  In other words, German companies invest heavily in digitalization.

In digitalization we find what we already know: the larger the company, the more likely that there is a workplace agreement (Betriesvereinbarung) between works councils and management. Overall, 44.3% of large companies – employing above 500 workers – have such formal workplace agreements. In 28.9% of such workplace agreements, the subject of digitalization is covered by an industry-wide union-negotiated agreement. German labour relations assigns the issue of digitalization to the workplace level and not to the industrial collective bargaining level.

Specific issues related to digitalization that are covered by such local workplace agreements are, for example, working time (71%), the protection of privacy (69.7%), leave and holiday regulations (61.7%), overtime (58.5%), health & safety (55.2%), training (38.5%), performance-related pay (36.5%), and part-time work regulation (27.8%).

When it comes to wages and salaries, Germany’s digital workers have experienced the very same that almost all workers – worldwide – experienced as well: union members earn more money.  In Germany’s digital sector, the wage gap between unionized and non-unionized workers was 20.8% in 2019. By 2020, it had fallen to 14.4%. Still, 14% more wage is a powerful argument for trade unions. It also explains why the corporate press constantly tells you, do not join a union!

Beyond all that, in 2017/18, 43.4% of German crowd workers earned about €1,000 ($1.072) per week. What €1,000 means is perhaps best understood by applying the Big Mac Index:  that is, to buy a Big Mac in Nairobi, for example, a worker needs to work 134 minutes, 15 minutes in New York while in Zurich – just 13 minutes!   

Apart form wages, 30.7% of all German crowd workers said that crowd working gives them additional income next to their main wage; only 23.3% said it is their main income. Yet, just 29% said they are happy with their pay; 26% said they are somewhat happy; 26% were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied; 2.7% said, they are somewhat unhappy with their pay; and 16% said they are not happy at all with their pay. In addition, the gender pay gap among digital labour is 6%.  

Next to the aforementioned car industry, Germany also has a significant chemical industry employing 390.000 workers in corporations like Bayer (including Monsanto), BASF, Henkel, etc.  In which, 39% of workers said, they are actually using the new flexibility introduced in the wake of digitalization. Whilst, 25% also said, recent moves towards digitalization has made it easier to combine work with family life – a move towards work-life balance. Yet, 30% also noted that relaxing after work is next to impossible, while 12% said it isn’t possible at all.

Much of this applies to a corporation that recently grew rather rapidly in Germany: Amazon. At Amazon’s East-German setup in the city of Erfurt, for example, about 2,000 workers are employed in its warehouse. Meanwhile, Amazon also employs 17 sub-contractors with 600 employees, as well as countless so-called self-employed Amazon drivers.  

At Amazon, workers are paid slightly above Germany’s minimum wage. In 2018, Germany’s minimum wage was €8.84. Amazon paid €10.52. By January 2022, the minimum wage was moving towards the €12- mark. Amazon was paying roughly that. On the capital side of the equation, Amazon increased its market share from 46% in 2018 to 53% in 2020. It is just as Karl Marx predicted when writing, monopoly is the inevitable end of competition. Amazon is well on that way.

While Amazon remains one of the ultimate signifiers of one form of digitalization, another form – platform capitalism – is also on the rise. As one might have expected, well above 60% of digital labour employed in the area of online cleaning services are female. Among those workers labouring for an online homecare company or an online company supplying handymen work, female participation is about 50% declining to about 18% female employees when it comes to transportation. 

Yet, platform capitalism remains a niche business in Germany with just 4.4% of all workers are employed by platform companies and corporation compared to 5.6% in France, and 6.5% in Ireland. These German workers are exposed to the fact that they almost never meet their co-workers. In addition, as their employment is framed by management as “independent contractors”, the actual work they do is highly fragmented, which does not help with the worker-to-worker communication and interaction.

Next to Germany’s for-profit industry, digitalization has also marched into Germany’s sizable government bureaucracy. When measured per electronic tax return submitted to the tax office, the sharp increase of digitalization becomes visible. In 2011, just 9.5% of all tax returns were submitted digitally. By 2021, it was 31.6%. Yet, digitalization not only changes work, it also has other negative consequences.

German trade unions expect that up to 30% of unskilled employees in the public sector are threatened by automation. Worse, perhaps up to 36% of jobs might be eliminated in areas where skilled workers are employed. As so often, those with a university degree are mostly spared – their expected decline is estimated to be around the 15% mark.

While automation can achieve many things in industry and public administration, German workers are reluctant when it comes to health and aged care provided by a fully-automated machine: a robot. Just 17% can imagine to be cared for by a machine. Meanwhile, 34% reject the idea outright. And still, 23% said not really when it comes to automated care via a robot. Yet, with an aging society advancing fast, many Germans might not have much of a choice when it comes to aged care – as someone else decides. 

Someone else also decides when it comes to the introduction of digitalization, robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence. Surprisingly, 74% of workers trust the introduction of AI when it assists them in routine clerical work. Still, only 51% of employees who work in IT security trust AI. 

At the same time, 70% of workers do not trust AI when it comes to customer service preferring – instead – the human-to-human interaction. Not trusting AI increases to 75% on the issue of self-driving cars. It surges to 78% in the area of middle- and higher management, and to a whopping 80% when in the areas of the disposition of labour in logistics companies. In other words, German workers tend not to trust algorithmic management.

Yet, when it comes to the introduction of AI, German workers continue to favour the well-established system of worker-management co-determination. In fact, 56% of digital workers agree with the statement that works councils need to play an active role on the issue of AI.  

While, 30% suggest that works councils need to show initiative and innovations. Simultaneously, 74% disagree with the statement that AI is no more than another form of IT.  In other words, Germany’s digital labour is aware of the massive changes that AI can cause.

Germany’s digital workers are also acutely aware of the potential increase in control and the asymmetry of power that defines work in a company. A massive 86% of Germany’s digital workers reject the control of digital communication by management. The same number also rejects management controlling the active-vs.-inactive time when working online. 84% thinks that managerial online control is an intrusion into their work. And, 78% do not want their computer use to be controlled by management. Still, 68% dislike the idea of management controlling workers’ performance via online systems. Yet, only 56% reject management’s power to control working time via online log-on-log-off systems.

Yet, 14% of digital workers believe that companies would violate existing laws to control workers. 33% believe management would do that not systematically but only in individual cases. And, 53% believe management would not break the law at all – let’s hope for the best. Then again, when have corporations ever broken the law?

Overall, the data provided by Germany’s trade union has shown that digitalization has advanced significantly. Secondly, platform labour still remains rather uncommon in Germany covering just 4.4% of workers. Thirdly, German workers have experienced massive changes that came with digitalization. 

Fourthly, most German companies and corporations have co-managed the introduction of digitalization. This means reaching agreements with Germany’s works councils at workplace level and through its system of co-determination at boardroom level. Most German workers trust these established institutions of co-determination. 

Typically for Germany’s labour relations system, digitalization is seen as an issue for workers’ – elected works councils and company-based co-determination. However, it is not seen as an issue for Germany’s industry-wide collective bargaining. It is not an issue in which trade unions are directly involved via collective bargaining. But that does not mean that trade unions aren’t involved in shaping Germany’s digitalization. On the contrary.

Although elected by law, German works councillors do not have to be union members. In fact, almost all are. All this means is that German trade unions will continue to shape the introduction of digitalization, automation, and artificial intelligence. They do so either directly via collective bargaining agreements or indirectly via Germany’s system of company-based co-determination.

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