#DebatingEthics Conversation 2: Digitalisation and the future of work

It is likely that most of us will have spent around one third of our lives at work. Work is a major factor in determining whether we feel fulfilled, stimulated and appreciated. It shapes our professional and personal development, defining our role and identity as members of society.

Work can be rewarding or demeaning, self-imposed or imposed by others. Human dignity is as much at stake in the workplace as it is in the domestic, social and civic spheres. Therefore, ethical questions arise from the nature of the work that is required of individuals and groups. These inquiries intensify in times of significant socio-economic and technological change, such as in Europe and North America during the industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th century, and over the last two decades with the rapid globalisation and digitisation of society and the economy.

The supposedly virtual world of digital in fact relies on intensive extraction from the real world, including human labour, information about people and natural resources, across sectors of the economy, supply chains and production cycles. Digitisation has affected work on many levels. Debate hitherto has tended to focus on hypothetical scenarios in which ‘autonomous’ and ‘intelligent’ machines render humans superfluous to more and more labour markets and ultimately replace them. (See, for instance, Kai-Fu Lee’s influential book AI Superpowers, or the debates within the World Economic Forum.)

But the discussion can also be framed more broadly. From the construction to the disposal of hardware, new forms of labour exploitation have emerged, such as with cobalt mining, manufacturing plants and informal e-waste recycling. In Finland, the feeding of algorithmic software with training data has become a new form of prison labour, presented as a digital upskilling project in the context of a penal reform programme. The dominant social media platform employs – often through outsourced short-term and low-wage contracting – human moderators to watch and classify disturbing content full-time. Captcha verification tests, for many years now, have in effect served as a form of free training for AI systems, delivered unwittingly by billions of internet users.

Trade unions and workers’ rights advocates draw attention to the precariousness of employment in the tech-driven ‘gig economy’. In China, a fierce debate is revolving around the impact of the ‘996’ culture (the expectation that employees work from 9am to 9pm six days a week) in the tech sector. Silicon Valley companies are criticised for perpetuating a predominantly white male culture and the ensuing bias replicated in AI systems and facial recognition, as well as for attempting to silence dissent through widespread imposition of non-disclosure and non-compete agreements on former employees and reprisals against whistleblowing existing employees.  

Technology is being applied to ‘optimise efficiency’ of workers through ever more intrusive performance monitoring and ‘gamification’ or ordering of behaviour according to algorithmic decision-making.  Fruit packaging plants in South Africa are fitted with screens that display real-time work speed of each station to increase performance pressure among teams. Ecommerce warehouses gear their employees with time-tracking scanners and invest in the development of control tools like wristbands that vibrate when employees’ hands move too far away from where they are supposed to be. Smart watches track Chinese street cleaners alerting management if they stay in the same place for too long.

Such activity tracking spills beyond the workplace. Companies provide wellbeing and health apps to their employees, collecting a wide range of biometric data for use by third parties as ‘insurance intelligence’. Drivers in ride-hailing services are tracked through their phones that send back data not only on working hours and location, but on factors as minute as acceleration and braking habits. Designers and IT experts who offer their services through online platforms are monitored by tools that count their keystrokes and mouse clicks, providing ‘activity meters’ to clients.

These new forms of managing work through online platforms often run on automated scoring systems that ‘deactivate’ contractors whose client ratings score below a predetermined threshold. Similarly automated hiring tools have been shown to reproduce discrimination, while information asymmetries and the mere lack of appeal mechanisms make it difficult, if not impossible for workers to challenge decisions taken about them by speaking to a human being. The platform and gig economy shifts risks to the workers and has been found to increase isolation, anxiety and factual economic insecurity due to the contingent nature of digitally mediated on-demand service provision.

Each of these trends raises a series of challenges across a wide range of policy fields, from labour law through to privacy and data protection. Where long-standing legislation requires review, updating or reinterpretation, a broader discussion on the ethics of the practices addressed by the legislation can be very helpful. How do such developments affect human dignity, solidarity, fairness, equality and other fundamental values and principles? How do they relate to broader questions of power, affect societal justice and undermine the social fabric?

This second #DebatingEthics Conversation explores the impact of digitalisation on human beings as workers. It looks at the potential for technology to empower but also to subject workers to the logic of algorithms serving powerful interests.


This podcast is hosted by Wojciech Wiewiórowski, Assistant European Data Protection Supervisor.

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It was recorded on 30 April 2019. People could follow the live recording and submit questions to the speakers. Please note that all messages and content you might have shared during the live recording, including Personal Data about you or others, were available to all other participants in the meeting. You can read our data protection notice here.



Ursula Huws is Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. She has been carrying out pioneering research on the economic and social impacts of technological change, the restructuring of employment and the changing international division of labour for many years.  Her next book, scheduled for publication in June 2019 will be entitled Labour in Contemporary Capitalism: What Next? and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

“Technologies used for managing work raise a number of worrying issues relating to individual autonomy, professional judgement and sociality in the workplace as well as posing challenges to the collaborative and caring values that should underpin European welfare states.”

Barbara Prainsack is a Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna, and at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London. Her work explores the social, regulatory and ethical dimensions of biomedicine and bioscience, with a special focus on digital practices. Her most recent book is Personalized Medicine: Empowered Patients in the 21st Century? (NYU Press, 2017). Barbara is a member of several advisory committees including the Austrian National Bioethics Committee and of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies.

“Only the strengthening of collective agency, in addition to individual control, will enable us to address the increasing social divisions between data givers and data takers, and fight practices of digital surveillance and exploitation that are disguised as practices of a ‘precision economy’.”

Aiha Nguyen is Data & Society's Project Lead for the Labor Futures Initiative. The initiative seeks to understand emergent disruptions in the labor force as a result of data-centric technological development, and create new frames for understanding disruptions through evidence-based research and collaboration with stakeholders. Aiha has over a decade of experience in advocacy, research, policy, and organizing. Aiha received her masters in Urban Planning from UCLA.

"The growing use of data-centric technology in the workplace have the potential to create social instabilities and shift power dynamics. This change can exacerbate social problems and greater inequality."

Why EDPS Podcasts?

The EDPS podcasts are part of our efforts to engage in topical debates on dataprotection in an innovative and accessible way. Public discourse is increasingly shaped by online interaction in various forms. We are eager to play our part in this by bringing together various stakeholders and perspectives in our podcast discussions. The podcasts will be interactive with the live recordings being open to anyone for listening in and sending questions and comments. As a forum of open, free and public debate, we believe they can contribute to shaping the discourse on new ethical, social and legal questions arising in the changing data protection ecosystem.