Blockchain for decent work ENG
"Blockchain for decent work" is a project co-financed by the European Union with the aim of investigating the fields of application of blockchain in the labor market and the margins of involvement of workers in the management of the algorithms contained therein.
The project was started in March 2020 and ended in August 2022. With the help of internal expertise in the consortium and with the involvement of external experts, we analyzed the more traditional applications of blockchain, but also the applications in the experimental phase, with the aim of identifying the current and potential implications for workers, as well as the challenges and opportunities related to them. The project was carried out in a context of great transformations, prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the digital transition policies that followed, and has allowed us to equip ourselves to negotiate the use of a socially useful and compatible blockchain in workplaces, in the context of a fair and inclusive digitisation.
We started from an awareness. The blockchain is a technology, one of the many technologies that are used in the business environment and like all technologies it uses data. In this case, the blockchain records data, certifies them and extracts information from them. And while it is indisputable that the data itself is objective, the information extracted from the data is not. The reading of data is always the result of an elaboration, therefore it is subjective. No technological application based on algorithmic data processing is neutral because it responds to the purposes of who programs the algorithm. Participating in the construction of the algorithm allows you to reconcile different interests and needs and ensure that all the players in the field benefit from the technology.
The blockchain is a digital archive for the certification of data and information built and shared by multiple nodes of a network. Each node, each for its own part of competence, has a copy of the register and contributes to introducing and validating the data. All copies of the registry are interconnected and synchronized.
Therefore, once the data has been entered, it cannot be modified by a node in the network without another node realizing it. The widespread and multi-perspective level of control is so extensive that an incorrect data would be immediately reported and any misunderstanding would emerge. For this reason it is stated that the blockchain is a technology that in principle guarantees the traceability, transparency and truthfulness of the data.
The fields of application of the blockchain are multiple and heterogeneous.
By way of example but not limited to, it is used for:
- certify the sustainability of company supply chains: companies collect and record - by transferring the information to the final consumer via QR code - information on the process of creating a product: from the procurement of raw materials to the industrial transformation processes up to logistics. There are agri-food, automotive (such as Ford, Volkswagen) or luxury companies such as (Tiffany), textile (such as Levi Strauss) that declare for their products and do so through a blockchain-based system that they do not contain raw materials raw materials coming from conflict zones or obtained with the exploitation of labor or which have been processed in safe and healthy places. Or it is done simply to certify the quality of raw materials, for example, the organic content of food products, or the authenticity of luxury products;
- certify the regularity of the employment relationships, and therefore the administrative, social security and tax obligations of the employer, the mandatory communications of data to the various entities, the information obligations to union representatives, the provision of economic and regulatory treatment to the employee, compliance with the working hours, health and safety measures, etc.;
- certify gender policies: blockchain-based systems are set up to detect objective data on the personnel situation, composition, careers, salary, use of permits, expectations, parental leave, early retirement, retirement, social safety nets, resignations and layoffs, to certify the presence of measures (work organization or otherwise) that respond to women's needs;
- measure organizational and individual performance and therefore collect data relating to the achievement of results according to the objectives set. An application that is used more and more also in consideration of remote work;
- certify training: the so-called digital training dossier includes certified information on study paths and qualifications obtained by a person. Training institutions and universities use it. Employers' associations are also starting to use it in cooperation with trade union organisations. The Metapprendo experience, which was introduced with the last contractual renewal of metalworkers in Italy, is a bilateral initiative aimed at guaranteeing training to employees of companies in the sector as a subjective right;
- favor the matching between job demand and supply, both in the public sector, to manage active and passive labor policies in a combined way, and in the private sector, to find suitable curricula for the job demand.
It is also being discussed more and more in the context of public procurement. For years, the European legislator has been promoting the digitization of public procurement, the so-called e-procurement. In particular, the blockchain is looked at as a data collection and certification system for the awarding phase of the tender for two types of reasons: the first because it can interconnect multiple databases, detect information on the operators participating in the tenders and in this way provide clear and reliable information on the requirements of the participants; the second because by establishing a priori the criteria for evaluating offers and detecting anomalous ones, a process is automated, that of evaluation, which is always a source of dispute for public administrations. However, it would be useful to apply the blockchain also in the execution phase, to detect and certify that the provisions of a regulatory and contractual nature are respected to guarantee the quality of the working conditions of the contracted workers in the production units.
The project explored the implications of trade union interest and the exercise of the role of workers' representatives, both in the framework of the renewal of national collective agreements in the sector and in that of second-level bargaining. In particular, we focused on the following points:
- If it is a certification system, which certifies the regularity and quality of work in the workplace, such as training for example, it cannot be the company that certifies itself, the controller cannot be the one controlled. Workers' representatives must be a node in the chain, not simply to certify information, but to participate in decisions regarding which data to collect, who must provide them, who must validate them to be reliable and how they must be processed in order to extract quality information. The accuracy of the data is relevant, and it is not guaranteed by the technology but by whoever programs that technology.
- If the blockchain is used to control the production activity or the provision of services (working hours, individual productivity assessment, health and safety, gender policies), the need arises to avoid invasive forms of control, pressure and surveillance and to share what happens when certain situations occur to avoid the improper use of data and possible algorithmic discrimination in the definition of work organization (e.g. assignment of shifts, tasks, career paths, etc. )
For the union, being a node in the chain means validating the "transaction" and being aware of it. It is in this logic that the sections of the collective agreements which regulate the rights and obligations of the signatory parties should be strengthened. In particular, it is necessary to strengthen information and consultation rights, so that involvement, transparency and consensus are guaranteed:
- ex ante, where new technologies are adopted, to establish objectives, correct setting of the algorithm, ongoing verification of machine learning developments, data sets used, etc.;
- ex post, to evaluate the correspondence of algorithmic processes to contractual and regulatory principles, so that the exercise of the employer's managerial power does not conflict, due to the pervasive use of technologies, with contracts and regulations.
In all cases in which the technological tool certifies (e.g. training certified by the worker), implements (see smart contracts, which perform actions when certain conditions occur) or exercises a decision-making capacity and defines the organization of work (e.g. indicating which sector/worker must carry out a certain task and in what terms and times this must take place) workers must be aware of the algorithmic mechanisms, the technologies adopted, the data used, the expected and possible consequences. In other words, they must be able to know and negotiate the purposes for which new technologies are introduced and the ways in which they are implemented. At stake are the managerial and disciplinary power of the employer, the rights related to privacy, the limits related to the issue of performance control, the information and consultation rights already present in collective agreements, the right to have bargaining spaces.
The above processes are already in place, both in the public and private sectors. The guide created as part of the project aims to accompany the workers' representatives in reading these processes and in acquiring knowledge and skills to be ready to face the challenges of the present and the future.
This project has received funding from the European Union under grant agreement No. VS/2020/0093.