Disruptive innovation on the labour market: the autonomous worker

Author: Author: Yves Stox, Senior Legal Counsel, Partena Professional.

During the second ‘Entrepreneurs Parliament’ on Tuesday 30 May 2017, Partena Professional was curious to hear the opinion of entrepreneurs on the new status of 'the autonomous worker'. The result? Entrepreneurs unmistakably are calling for an innovative approach: 93.5% voted in favour of this new status.

Technology is evolving at lightning speed and the impact on the labour market is huge. Some jobs will be lost, new jobs must be created. Computerization and robotization have become the paramount order of the day.

The first trends are starting to emerge. Routine jobs in administration and sales for example are already disappearing because of new technology. Most of these jobs are middle-wage jobs.

Recent labour market developments in banking and insurance are striking. Belgium responds to these disappearing jobs by creating new, often high-skilled and high-paid jobs. In other European countries, they are often supplanted by low-skilled and low-paid jobs. At the same time, Belgium has a higher unemployment rate.

Labour law under pressure

What is the appropriate reaction to this evolution? One thing that is for sure, is that it is time for a new direction for Belgian labour law. The traditional distinction between workers and self-employed workers is no longer ‘future-proof’ and must evolve. The creation of a new status, the ‘autonomous worker’, is an important step in this process.

History shows why the distinction between workers and self-employed workers does not stand the test of time. Employment relations have drastically changed since the 19th century industrial revolution. However, back in the distant 19th century lies the origin of the distinction between workers and self-employed workers. The employment contract act of 10 March 1900 protected for the first time the worker who worked under ‘direction, authority and supervision’.

How can this distinction based on authority still play a role in the future? Authority and control are characteristic of routine jobs, but those jobs are vanishing. High-quality new jobs focus on autonomy and creativity.

Technical developments and progressive specialization not only make control more difficult but also less relevant. Technology and automated processes take over. Workers are expected to do much more than just follow and apply directives.

An innovative company gives workers all freedom: they choose the materials and suppliers, manage the budgets and determine production time with the customer. Quite naturally, the gathered expertise and sense of professional pride are a quality guarantee. There is little difference with the self-employed. Achieving the result comes first.

Looking for guidelines for the future

In the long run, embroidering away on the existing distinction is not a good idea. Belgian labour law could do with a bit of disruptive innovation.

Almost every innovation starts as an experiment. In a first phase, that is also the role of the new status of ‘autonomous worker’. This is a new category that occurs next to, or even better, among workers and self-employed workers. Gradually, the 19th century categories can run empty to the beat of the labour market evolutions. The number of autonomous workers increases proportionally.

Worker, self-employed worker or autonomous worker? Worker and entrepreneur determine by mutual agreement which status should be applied.

Is everything done in a fair and correct manner? The way in which both parties shall implement the agreement is the touchstone. Autonomous workers determine the way in which they organize work and working time. Workers do not have that autonomy. Autonomous workers thus resemble self-employed workers but just as workers, they are economically dependent on the entrepreneur. Therefore, autonomous workers deserve proper contractual protection.

Entrepreneurs are in favour of the new status

Companies need a transparent and balanced legal framework that makes sense in the long run.

During the second ‘Entrepreneurs Parliament’ on Tuesday 30 May 2017, Partena Professional took the test. Entrepreneurs unmistakably are calling for an innovative approach: 93.5% voted for a new status of ‘autonomous worker’.

Author: Yves Stox, Senior Legal Counsel, Partena Professional.


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