Can the social dialogue be replaced by an algorithm?

Message From The Unseen World by R~P~M — CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

The social dialogue is the process whereby social partners (trade unions and employer organisations) negotiate, often in collaboration with the government, labour market policies. It is a widespread procedure to develop employment legislation in the European Union.

Data Driven Social Dialogue

I was speaking at the CEPS Ideas Lab yesterday and discussed a topic which popped out of mind which I’ve called “data driven social dialogue”. More specifically, what role technology and above all algorithm management can play in the social dialogue.

If you look closely at the on demand economy, workers are not managed by people but by algorithms that communicate with them through their smartphones. When the app is updated, new situations usually emerge which are not always favorable for the workers.

What people fail to understand is that algorithms are not just providing a degree of control and oversight but, if carefully repurposed, they can assist workers to get better conditions.

When the social dialogue was conceived, employers and employees’ organizations did not have access to computer generated data with real time processing and analytics.

But now, we do.

How Data Collection Can Benefit the Social Dialogue

Tons of data is generated more than ever before by our phones, our homes, our computers, our offices, our cars, our fridge, our medical records. Every bit is connected to each other with sensors and the IoT. This information can be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and interactions, also in relation to workers’ behaviour.

All of this data has the potential to increase collective knowledge and has enormous societal value with direct impacts on public issues in very regulated spaces, such as the social dialogue.

We now have the ability to redesign the way we conduct the social dialogue and shape labour policy according to these inputs.

Platforms have been mining large sets of data trails users provide with their digital interactions to generate insights with economic, but also social and environmental nature. Think of rating and reputation systems that can ensure employers and employees have an incentive to work together and share value.

Social partners need data to make sense of what’s going on in an increasingly complex, but also increasingly quantifiable world of work. They need data to effectively negotiate collective agreements and ensure health and safety on the workplace, prevent discrimination, and properly account for workers’ hours.

There are answers inside the data!

So, What to Do with this Data?

So, here is a suggestion which at first will appear to be hard to crack.

Platforms systematically hand over anonymized (but audited! … this is important) datato social partners and governments (if the national system is tripartite), who can use it to inform their deliberations in the social dialogue and ultimately to regulate. The blockchain technology can provide a further layer to validate this data in the near future.

Why should platforms do this? Because they can build trust with the social partners, ensure compliance with a set of regulations and enact transparency with their own users.

According to Nick Grossman, as a precondition for this system to work, the following should happen:

  1. Social partners and regulators need to make it less hard for platforms to get started and increase the freedom to operate. This is crucial for experimentation and innovation.
  2. In exchange of that freedom, platforms need to share data with social partners and regulators in real time, just like their users do with them. And they will need to accept that data may result in forms of accountability.

The Way Forward

Of course there will be a number of barriers — the transition won’t be smooth. Firstly, sharing economy companies not very good at sharing. For them, the algorithm is a commercial secret and then there are massive issues concerning privacy, around this model.

Nevertheless, as Danny Crichton puts it, carefully designed algorithms and efficient data collection today could do for workers what employers and employees organisations did in the 19th century: provide a vastly improved market for work, one that is simultaneously more convenient, safe, and why not … lucrative for the workers.

If the social partners are not capturing this opportunity to reinvent themselves for this task, then other pro-worker, tech-savvy, social innovators are likely to step in this space and move this discussion forward.

So, can the social dialogue be replaced by an algorithm? No, not yet! It will take years to make this transformation but the journey begins now.

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Marco Torregrossa is Secretary General at the European Forum of Independent Professionals and Managing Director at Euro Freelancers.

This post originally appeared on the Euro Freelancers Blog here.

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