Thorben Albrecht is responsible for addressing the impact of the digital revolution on the labour sector and preparing Germany workers for the future. The minister presented his Work 4.0 white paper at the Future of Work conference hosted by Estonia’s rotating presidency of the EU.
Thorben Albrecht is secretary of state at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Germany. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Albrecht spoke with EURACTIV.com’s Jorge Valero during the Future of Work conference in Tallinn, Estonia.
The welfare state has barely changed since its inception. Now a sense of urgency exists to rethink it. Workers, who were once accustomed to lifelong careers now face increasingly intermittent opportunities. Are we prepared for these sudden transformations?
We really have to speed up and identify some crucial issues to change the existing system. This, of course, includes lifelong learning for individuals, companies or public institutions.
We are witnessing increasing inequality and poverty levels. In order to tackle this issue, not only education but more engagement and empowerment of our citizens, supporting their entrepreneurship initiative or even more Europe could be needed. What is your recipe?
We have to make sure that we have good working conditions in the future. This includes good wages. This can only be paid if the qualifications are there, but also if we have collective bargaining agreements, which for me are not an instrument of the past but rather of the future. We also have to look at self-employees and be sure if they are really self-employees. Otherwise, they have to be employed. We must ensure they have decent conditions when they sell their working time.
We should also make platform companies working internationally to pay taxes, because they benefit, for example, from the education system of the country where they are based. That is why I welcome the initiative of the Finance ministers of France, Germany, Spain, and Italy to make sure that these companies pay taxes in Europe. This is an example where we need European and not only national solutions.
Social security systems should play in our favour in Europe to navigate through this digital transformation. At the same time, countries building them almost from scratch may adapt them faster than in Europe. Is it an advantage or a disadvantage with highly developed welfare states?
I think it is an advantage because, in the long run, countries with no welfare state are in a weaker position when it comes to the quality of their employment or their economy. Except for China, I don’t see any country that is really starting a social welfare system now. In Europe, we can see that the welfare state that has existed for over a hundred years has been very adaptable. There have been changes, for example, in work. It is an advantage to have a basis, but we cannot wait and see. We have to be active.
What specific points would you adapt?
We have to make sure that not only of workers but also employers take responsibility for social security. For example, platforms have to take responsibility for crowd workers, and also contribute to social security systems in the future. There will be mixed forms, not all of them will be new. In Germany, we are using the textile workers’ law in social partners’ agreements to set minimum wages for home workers selling products on platforms.
Estonian Minister of Employment Jevgeni Ossinovski said that the welfare state is not at risk but must be strengthened. Do you agree?
Yes. If we want to have more flexibility, we need new forms of security as well. One idea we have in our white paper is that unemployment insurance should be more proactive. It should be counselling workers and, in the future, should also finance qualifications that are needed to retain your job. That is a new form of security and development of our system that is necessary under the new circumstances.
Despite its solid fiscal position, Germany has been blamed for not investing enough in infrastructure and human capital. Is it a serious disadvantage given that Industry 4.0 is a top priority for your country?
Absolutely. The investment issue is a crucial question for Germany. This is true also for the private sector. With the Industry 4.0 package, there are some new initiatives because the digitalisation of our factories demands investment. Public investment is a hot issue now in the campaign for the general elections (to be held on 24 September). The Social Democrats demand much more investment. Public investment has to be increased in Germany. If you want to manage change and not just look at what is happening and stand aside you need to put money on the table.
At industry level, do you perceive the appropriate level of readiness in Germany?
When it comes to qualifications, at lot has been done. But, for example, regarding low-skill workers, a lot has to change. That is why we demand rights for work councils to take the initiative with qualifications to ensure that low-skilled workers are involved.