The annual conference that unites legal experts from the ETUC’s member organisations, NETLEX, took place on 22 and 23 February in Brussels. This year’s topic was the role of labour law in shaping the future world of work. The presentations ranged from core labour law topics, such as the meaning of the terms ‘employee’ and ‘worker’, to envisioning how labour law should respond to robots and rapid developments in artificial intelligence.

In her opening speech on the first day of the conference, ETUC Confederal Secretary Esther Lynch emphasised that labour is not a commodity and cannot become one in the future.

The first panel looked at how labour law will regulate the digital future. Paulo Pinto de Albuquerque, a judge of the European Court of Human Rights, kicked things off with an analysis of the current ECtHR case law. He concluded that this case law definitely needs to be developed further in order to be suitable for dealing with the new challenges posed by the digital world of work.

With workers’ rights currently under attack, particularly the right to dignity and privacy in the workplace,  Albuquerque emphasised the key role of the trade unions in supporting workers, bringing cases to court and providing indispensable expertise in these cases.

Tony Warr (British trade union GMB) presented the strategy behind the recent success for platform workers (Uber drivers) in the United Kingdom, who the Employment Tribunal found to be ‘workers’ instead of ‘self-employed’. Catelijne Muller (EESC) discussed robots and artificial intelligence, and emphasised that while not many jobs will be done entirely by robots in the near future, certain parts of almost all jobs will be. She urged trade unions to develop a strategy on ways in which the new robots and artificial intelligence could help and work for us rather than destroy jobs. Finally, Esther Lynch brought the first day to a close with a presentation on the ETUC’s draft proposal for a directive aimed at protecting online platform workers.

The second day opened with a panel chaired by Wiebke Warneck (ETUC) on the notions of ‘worker’ and ‘employer’ in the future world of work. Professor Martin Risak (University of Vienna) put forward an argument for a broader interpretation of ‘worker’ at the EU level, while Professor Jeremias Prassl (Oxford University) challenged the existing notion of ‘employer’ and proposed a new, functional one that is not based on determining who is the contracting party but rather on who fulfils functions that are characteristic of an employer’s role. Finally, Wiebke Warneck outlined how labour law can protect workers, calling for a framework EU labour law enforcement directive, and stressed that we have to stop condemning Member States that go beyond minimum protection standards (‘gold-plating’) when it comes to EU labour law instruments.

The following panel, chaired by Stefan Clauwaert (ETUI), tackled the question of how to hold the top-level management of companies accountable. Mathilde Frapard (CFDT) presented the recently adopted new French law on due diligence, which can certainly be considered an innovative piece of legislation in the field of (labour) law. Makbule Sahan (ITUC) then sketched out the realised and pending initiatives at the international level (ILO/IN) on making global supply chains more accountable for the violation of both consumer and workers’ rights, arguing that while some headway has been made there is still a lot to be done. Finally, Wiebke Warneck presented the ETUC positions on the need for EU legislation on whistleblowing.

The last panel of day two united representatives from the ETUC (Esther Lynch), European Commission (Inge Bernaerts), European Parliament (Maria Joao Rodrigues, S&D) and ILO (Claire Couteille) and was chaired by Gabrielle Bischoff (EESC). The panel discussed the European Pillar of Social Rights. Inge Bernaerts said that the Commission understands the importance of delivering actual rights to workers rather than just empty words. Esther Lynch stressed that the Pillar discussion is at an important crossroads where we have to choose between a race to the top or to the bottom. Maria Joao Rodrigues presented the main points of the Resolution that the European Parliament have adopted on the Pillar and emphasised that it should tackle social inequalities and be accompanied by a proposal for a directive on decent working conditions. Finally, Claire Courteille stressed that the Pillar should play a rebalancing role in the EU by including social rights within economic processes, and that ILO Conventions should be used as a point of reference.

The NETLEX Conference 2017 closed with speeches from Stefan Clauwaert (ETUI) and Wiebke Warneck (ETUC) who, with regard to the European Pillar of Social Rights, stressed that 15,000 voices of both individual workers and trade unions had expressed their will and readiness to shape the future of work; now the EU needs to deliver.