labor law Embrace Digitization, It's Unstoppable

As working life changes in line with digitization, politicians are considering whether current labor law is up to date. New patterns of work may benefit employees but we should be flexible, the author argues.
Work patterns are changing.

Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution: mechanization, mass production, automation and now digitization.

More human activities are being translated into a language readable by machines and carried out by computers or robots.

Detlef Wetzel, chairman of the German Metalworkers’ Union, IG Metall, sees digitization as a social and wage policy challenge, but not as real threat.

Together with Ulrich Grillo, president of The Federation of German Industries (BDI), Mr. Wetzel has written an optimistic book called "Work 4.0," arguing that traditionally technical progress in Germany has always been linked to social progress for employees.

Employers and labor unions are likely the best place to find intelligent, industry-specific solutions that represent a fair balance of demands.

Responding to Mr. Grillo’s prediction it will be easier to work from different locations in the future, the head of Germany’s most important labor union argues that will be fine so long as workers are given more opportunities to organize work themselves. The deal between employer and employee offers greater flexibility for greater security.

The optimistic expectations for Industry 4.0 stand in stark contrast with the retrograde discussions about forms of work and work schedules.

The eight-hour workday has been the norm in Germany since November 15, 1918. According to the Hours of Work Act, non-managerial employees as a rule are not allowed to work more than eight hours per day.

Maximum working time can grow to ten hours “if the average shift within six calendar months or twenty-four weeks does not exceed eight hours per working day,” according to the law on working time. Since Saturday is considered a work day, the permissible weekly time is 48 hours excluding a number of exceptions such as hospital staff and soldiers. This includes an auxiliary condition that “it must always be taken into account that 11 hours of uninterrupted rest after daily work must be guaranteed.” This means those who go home early to care for their children, for example, but still answer business emails at 11 p.m. from a home computer don’t need to be at the office again at 8 a.m. the next morning.

There is nothing wrong with promoting the concept of “Good Work,” as German labor unions have done since the 1990s.

What is wrong given globalization and digitization, however, is to label all forms of work that don’t mesh with normal working conditions and permanent full-time employment as atypical or precarious and, therefore, substandard.

As Ulrich Walwei, deputy director of The Institute for Employment Research (IAB), said, “Normal doesn’t have to be better.”

Digitization is easy to complain about, but this fourth industrial revolution cannot be stopped anymore than the first, second or third.

The same principle applies to the blurring of boundaries between work and free time associated with Industry 4.0.

The real challenge is dealing with the fact that digitized work isn’t anchored to a single location.

This means the older forms of work migration, including the movement of the workforce tied to a certain location, are being challenged by digitization and a new form of “migration” based on networks.

This new challenge cannot be confronted with rigid, across the board regulations for all industries if we are to make the best of the opportunities digitization presents for Germany – and workers' hopes for secure jobs are to be fulfilled.

Policymakers should transfer more responsibility for regulating working hours to collective bargaining parties and declare their solutions, where appropriate, as generally binding.

Employers and labor unions are likely the best place to find intelligent, industry-specific solutions that represent a fair balance of demands. They have proven successful in the past by making sure company operations remain flexible in response to globalization.

The German Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Andrea Nahles, should keep this positive experience with our collective bargaining in mind when updating of the Hours of Work Act in view of Industry 4.0.


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