Luca Jahier, President of Group III of the European Economic and Social Committee and a supporter of the European Sunday Alliance from the very beginning, opened the conference, together with the Members of the European Parliament Evelyn Regner (S&D) and Thomas Mann (EPP).
During the conference Thomas Mann highlighted that “work-life-balance is a crucial factor in the debate on Health and Safety at Work”. “We have to defend workers against the philosophy of the always-available employee. Our message to the institutions: We stand for a work-free day for all European citizens! I demand to establish the Sunday as work-free day within the working time directive revision!” Evelyn Regner added that “Digitalisation brings new opportunities but it also contains risks for a healthy work-life-balance. Workers must be able to disconnect in their home life. The right to have breaks, to be unavailable during leisure time and to have at least one work-free day per week has to be secured for all workers in Europe. To achieve all this, we need a fair distribution of work and profits.”
The framework of the conference was set by Günther H. Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Economy & Society. He addressed in his keynote speech the transformation and future of work and societies in Europe caused by digitalisation. He reminded the participants that it would be impossible to stop the evolution of technology, but that one would need to assess how one can use this evolvement for the benefit of employers and employees. He added that the focus on the impact of digitalisation on industry was too short-sighted. Digitalisation would change the working world and would further increase the flexibilisation of work. This would improve the reconciliation of work and private life on the one hand. On the other hand, one could not expect everybody to be available at all times. A right to switch off our mobile phones is needed but also an obligation to switch off. He stressed that a right to be unavailable and a right to an end of the work day is required.
On the first panel four speakers discussed “New forms of employment - Flexibilisation of working time”. Irene Mandl, Eurofound, explained from a research perspective that digitalisation will have structural effects on the world of labour, e.g. by making more home offices possible, which will support labour market integration, but which can also produce more social isolation. The effects envisaged are still ambivalent. Phillip von Eberhard, Consultant for Digital Transformation and Intrapreneurship of established business models, emphasized that companies would have to adapt to digitalisation since the current business models would not be future-proofed. While he highlighted the possibilities for a better work-life-balance due to flexiblisation through the digitalisation of work; Delphine Latawiec, National Centre of Employees Belgium/UNI Europa Commerce, stressed that not all employees could choose their working place or time. Flexibility could truly improve the work-life-balance only of specific groups of workers. However, in particular low skilled workers would require additional protection. Baudouin Baudru, member of Cabinet of Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, assured that the Commission was currently working to ensure that the legal and policy framework would be fit for purpose. He announced that the Commission will publish the European Pillar of social rights and a work-life-balance package in March 2017 to improve the social dimension of the European Union.
The second panel focused on the topic “Life beyond work and digitalisation – The need for unavailability”. Evelyn Regner, Member of the European Parliament, underlined the value of breaks; not only for the employees but also for the productivity and creativity of companies. She was endorsed by H. E. Bruno Feillet, Auxiliary Bishop of Reims (France). Since everyone has to play different roles and life is tense; it will become increasingly difficult to get a break. Digitalisation has the potential to bring families together e.g. via Skype and would facilitate access to knowledge. Yet, digital devices would also keep people from speaking with each other, with people too often focused on their smart phones instead on their interlocutors. What it means to be a crowd worker was described by Hector Saz, a specialist teleoperator from Spain. Most crowd workers would work in a-typical working conditions, only part-time, during non-typical working hours and are paid badly. The majority of workers in these sectors are young and unskilled; they have more than one job to earn enough money to live on which would make reconciliation almost impossible. Hannes Kreller, Alliance for the Free Sunday Germany, stressed the importance of synchronized free time to participate in a social life, in sports or culture. Everybody is doing yoga or fitness today to find an individual way to escape the so-called “rat race”. However, what is needed is a common and consistent approach to work-life-balance for the whole of society. Digitalisation could create new forms of societal engagement and activism said Ingo Dachwitz, Editor of netzpolitik.org and youth delegate in the Synod of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD). He remarked that an in-depth societal debate about how digitalisation impacts our life and what values we want embodied in digital technology is still missing as well as a proper digital education.