Andrus Ansip, the European Commission Vice-President in charge of digital policy, has admitted that new technology will cost jobs but insisted automation would not cause “mass unemployment”.
“People who risk losing their jobs because of digitisation need and deserve our help,” he told a gathering of manufacturing industry executives yesterday (7 March) in Brussels.
Ansip acknowledged that employment in the sector will buckle as a result of technological change. Companies will need to hire employees with specialised skills to operate robots and automated machines that replace lower-skilled factory jobs.
“In manufacturing it is true that some jobs are disappearing but it is also true that the job skills we need for future manufacturing will be more high-tech as the economy grows,” he said.
Only 3.6% of the EU workforce are technology specialists, according to data published by the Commission last week. Only 56% of Europeans have the most basic digital skills.
Ansip’s comments follow months of promises from politicians in the UK and US to boost lagging manufacturing industries with tax breaks and other incentives to hire workers.
Manufacturing jobs in industrial powerhouse Germany shrunk by 19% between 1996 and 2012, compared to a loss of 33% of manufacturing jobs in the US during the same period.
President Trump campaigned last year on a platform of restoring lost manufacturing jobs. The UK shed even more manufacturing jobs than the US over the same 16 years.
“We should not ignore the social risks involved,” he warned the crowd.
Ansip took control of EU technology policies affecting industry at the beginning of the year, when Günther Oettinger, the Commissioner from an industry-rich pocket of southwest Germany, was put in charge of the EU budget.
“Of course some people will lose jobs, some industries even will lose market share, that is sure,” Ansip told EURACTIV.
Ansip said last week that he is against taxing companies that replace jobs with robots. The European Parliament called for an EU-wide law on robots in a vote last month and rejected a proposal to tax robot owners.
Despite the dismal message about job loss, Ansip came armed with a message to ward off technology sceptics. He pointed to a figure predicting that online app companies will create more than three million new jobs in Europe by 2018 as proof that technology will breath life into the EU job market.
Ansip did not comment on concerns that many of those three million new digital jobs will come with precarious or self-employed conditions.
But trade unions warn that new jobs fro the app econmy will not offset the jobs that automation will eat up. MEPs approved a resolution in January demanding apps like ride-hailing service Uber give drivers formal job contracts with fair work conditions.
Julian Scola, from the European Trade Union Confederation, said the union is “concerned that the Commission is not taking the risks of jobs and the quality of jobs and digitisation seriously enough.”
“It’s quite clear in the gig economy and in platform jobs that there are precarious jobs. People have zero-hour contracts or classify themselves as self-employed when they’re not really self-employed,” he said.
Marianne Thyssen, the EU employment Commissioner, will announce proposals on EU social policies this spring, including changes to labour contract law and digital economy jobs.
Industry groups worry the Commission won’t do enough to tighten social security laws and are asking the executive to redraw EU rules to make up for self-employed app economy workers who can more easily fall through legal cracks.
“There will be completely different types of employer-employee relationships. This will definitely create challenges for the social security system and the financing of the social security system,” said Uwe Combüchen, director of manufacturing employers’ association CEEMET.
But Combüchen said he fears the overhaul of EU labour rules next month won’t match the radical changes brought on by the app economy.
“I don’t see that the European Commission is really having a whole new approach. It’s more about cementing existing rights,” he said.