interview  | 

Where is the digitalization of work going to take us?

Interview with Luz Rodríguez, Professor of Labor and Social Security Law at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and Senior Specialist in Labor Market Institutions at the International Labor Organization.

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María Luz Rodríguez (Valladolid, 1964) holds a PhD and is Professor of Labor Law at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and Senior Specialist in Labor Market Institutions of the International Labor Organization (ILO). She has held various public positions in the field of employment and social affairs. Specifically, she has served as mediator and head of the Legal Department of the Interconfederale Service of Mediation and Arbitration, as well as arbitrator of the Labor Arbitration Jury of Castilla-La Mancha. She has been an advisory member of the Cabinet of the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and Minister of Employment, Equality and Youth of the Government of Castilla-La Mancha. Between 2010 and 2011 she was Secretary of State for Employment of the Spanish Ministry of Labor and Immigration. We spoke to her about digitalization and Spanish and European perspectives on the future of work.

What do you think are the main transformations facing the world of work and business as a result of digitalization?

The very concepts of work and business are in some ways being challenged by technological transformation, but perhaps most importantly, what digital transformation does is that it requires us to have digital skills, digital education and digital training. Because the big key to staying in employment and staying in the labor market is that we are able to work with machines, with robots and with algorithms. And that requires digital skills on our part.

Do you think Europe is ready to face this increasing digitalization and specifically in the case of Spain?

I think we are on the right track, but we are not there yet.

All European countries are making progress in the training of digital skills and digital education of the population in general and of the working population in particular. So we are seeing that very important advances are taking place in that area. When we look more specifically at Spain, we can see that this index tells us that 57 percent of our country’s population has basic digital skills. This means that 47 percent of our population does not even have basic digital skills. And yet, the world we are in already demands us to have a minimum level of digital competency for any given job. So, indeed, a transformation is needed in terms of education and training in digital skills for the whole population.

What do you think policymakers can do to guarantee this transformation in education?

I believe that policy makers have a major role to play in preparing their populations in order to face this technological transformation.

I think the first thing is that we have to bring the issue and the challenge to the public agenda, to tell the general population that everybody needs to have digital competencies, because even the elderly when they go to the doctor or when they go to a hospital, they need to have a minimum and basic knowledge of technology. 

So we have to ensure digital transformation for the whole population, implement educational policies in line with the needs of the people and implement an effective national strategy immediately.

And I am talking about Spain, but we could also be talking about France, Italy, or Germany. This strategy requires economic resources and careful planning.

How have labor relations evolved since Covid? How can policy makers ensure that digital rights such as the right to disconnect or data protection are respected?

Teleworking, in fact the use of technology for virtually all jobs, is here to stay so we have to reflect more on how we are going to regulate working conditions in the digital stage. Because we have recognized rights, including the right to disconnection, but also the right to privacy and the right to data protection. In the platform economy, algorithms are used to distribute tasks, optimize workflows and evaluate workers. If your employee is an algorithm, how can you hold them accountable?

The truth is that the platform economy has two characteristics that I would like to point out. The first is that there is not yet a significant part of the European and Spanish working population working in the platform economy. But, on the other hand, this economy has the power to question what a company is and what a worker is.

Moreover, it is entering new spaces where we did not think there would be platforms. We are talking about public administration, the Welfare State. It calls into question the concept of a worker, because the person who works through a platform is often not the same kind of worker as we have known to date.  

And on the other hand, it calls into question what a company is, because there is no body, there is no physical attribute, what we call a company is inside our computer or an app on our phone. It is a company, it assumes business responsibilities, it grants labor rights. A company exists because there is always a core to which those rights and obligations are attributed. But what is the company if the only vision we have of it is an app on our computer?

The platform economy has called into question the concept of worker and employer as well as the battle of the riders: the employee v the self-employed?

In all countries where there is a platform economy, this discussion exists. A discussion that focuses on whether people who work through platforms are workers or self-employed. In every country where there has been this discussion there are diverse opinions. We are facing a reality that is sometimes difficult to fit into the labor schemes we have in each of our countries. 

There is a whole world of platform work that does not fit into the law, that is not written into the law and about which we will continue to debate.

 

How do work and work experiences vary by gender?

The truth is that there are more than enough reasons for a reflection on how sex or gender influences work in the platform economy. We do not have a gender perspective when it comes to the platform economy, but I think it is necessary to integrate it. First, because there are platforms in which the majority of work is carried out by women, the care platforms. Secondly, because digital platforms are often preferred by women for work, as women somehow believe that by working through a digital platform they have more freedom and therefore more possibility to reconcile their professional life with their family life, and to use the platform as an instrument of conciliation, work and family life.

This, which to some extent can be positive, can also be negative. It could lead to classifying roles and segregating work on platforms depending on whether you are a woman or a man. What we could see happening is that women work on platforms to reconcile their professional and personal lives while men do not feel the need to. So this reflection on gender perspective is fundamental in the platform.

There are situations of cyberbullying or physical harassment that do not occur in the same way for women and for men.

When the evaluation of occupational risks on a digital platform is made, this gender perspective must be taken into account to avoid risks that fundamentally affect women more than they affect men.

Digital Spain 2025, highlights the SME digital divide as one of the main priorities to be addressed, even more urgently as a result of the pandemic. Why is digitalization so important for smaller companies?

Spain is a country of SMEs and micro-SMEs. In fact, almost 90 percent of the companies registered in our country have fewer than 10 workers. That is to say, we are a country consisting fundamentally of SMEs and micro SMEs, and that is why it is very important that the composition of the business fabric of our country is not an obstacle to the digitization and digital transformation of the economy. What does this mean? It means that they have to transform technologically.

Larger companies are already in the process of digital transformation, but we have to have an economic strategy and a support strategy so that smaller companies are also able to digitize.

 

The EU Regulation on Platform-to-Business Relationships (P2B Regulation), which came into force in July 2019, is the first set of rules that creates a fair, transparent and predictable trading environment for smaller businesses on online platforms. How can SMEs make the most of the opportunities offered by the new P2B Regulation?

You need to have an entrepreneurial culture, you need to have a culture of transformation and digital innovation and have the support to carry it out.

So I think European regulation can create opportunities for SMEs in our country and ensure digital transformation in line with other countries.

If digitalization can lead to job losses, this affects the very structure of the social protection model. How can we approach social protection in the digital era?

Well, it is true that when we talk about the technological revolution, the first question is whether the technological revolution is going to lead to job losses. And the second question is then, what will happen to our social protection systems that are designed to have a higher volume of jobs than we seem to be able to have. 

It is clear there will be a loss of jobs of those currently performed by humans that can also be done through automation. However, there is no consensus on how many jobs will be lost.

There is, however, beginning to be a consensus on which jobs and which tasks will be more easily automated and therefore no longer performed by humans. Hence the need, as I said before, to have digital skills so that we can adapt to the creation and transformation of jobs. Now, the question is whether this job creation will be enough to have a volume of employment to maintain our social protection models.

The more employment contributions and possibilities for employment we have, the more contributions and possibilities of benefits.

 

The post-work era - are we humans going to stop working at some point? Could we be heading towards a post-work society?

The truth is that I have thought a lot about whether the digital revolution could lead us to a society without work, to a society of pleasure and leisure. I think that it won’t happen in a short time because work is much more than the transformation of the means to obtain something with which to survive.

Work has a lot to do with participation in society, with integration in society, and this participation of the human being in society is absolutely inherent to us. Therefore, I believe that for a long time we will keep working. I am using the word work and not the word employment, which is a different concept. Employment means something paid by someone. And with respect to work, I am referring to the sense of Hannah Arendt when she spoke of human activity. 

In this sense, I do believe that we are heading towards a society where people will have to work complemented by machines, complemented by algorithms, complemented by robots, that is to say, what will be the norm is that humans and machines, humans and robots, coexist at work.

I do believe that this will happen and it will not be in the distant future but very soon.