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The digitalisation of service
work: A comparative study of
restructuring of the banking
sector in the United Kingdom
King’s Business School, King’s College London, London, UK and ESRC-funded Digital Futures at Work Research
Centre, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.
Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Soﬁa, Bulgaria
Labour Market Department, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER), Esch-sur-Alzette,
The article compares the process of digitalisation and outcomes from work restructuring
in two banks from the United Kingdom and Luxembourg. The banking sectors in both
countries have been challenged by digitalisation pressures such as online and mobile
banking, pressures from ‘Fintech’banks, and the automation of back-ofﬁce operations.
Yet, the adjustment paths in the two countries differed. In Luxembourg, there is an
adjustment via limited lay-offs, and increased training and reskilling; however, in the
United Kingdom, the main outcomes revolve around branch downsizing and offshoring of
employment. These outcomes are explained by differences in institutional supports for
collective voice institutions, as well as the role of the state. The ﬁndings demonstrate that
the embedded employment relations’institutions and actors have shaped distinct paths of
adjustment to digitalisation; and show how the impact of technology on work is neither
deterministic nor unidirectional.
Andreas Kornelakis, King’s Business School, King’s College London, Bush House, 30 Aldwych, London WC2B
Banking, digitalisation, employment relations, Luxembourg, United Kingdom
The debate around the impact of digitalisation on service work is relatively polarised
between pessimistic and optimistic perspectives among academics, practitioners and
policymakers (Grimshaw, 2020;Ilsøe, 2017;O’Reilly et al., 2018). The more pessimistic
and alarmist perspectives emphasise the likely effects of automation in job losses and
massive technological unemployment (Frey and Osborne, 2017). By contrast, the op-
timistic perspectives underline the potential for job creation that can counterbalance job
losses (Grimshaw, 2020) and the opportunities for work-life balance and reskilling (EU
Economic and Social Committee, 2015). There is a sizeable body of literature that
examined the challenges that the platform economy poses for workers in terms of their
precariousness (Gandini, 2019); the ﬂexibility and autonomy (Wood et al., 2019); and
their representation (Borghi et al., 2021). However, there is still limited research that
explicitly examines how collective voice institutions respond to the challenge of digi-
talisation in established services sectors that are not part of the platform economy.
The purpose of the article is to ﬁll this gap and explain the divergent trajectories of
change in response to digitalisation pressures in the banking sector. To this end, we draw
on comparative analysis of two internationalised banks in the United Kingdom and
Luxembourg. Our ﬁndings suggest that –despite similar pressures –the responses to
digitalisation in large part diverged and the role of embedded collective voice institutions
and actors’ability to tap on their power resources explains this variation. In Luxembourg,
the consensual social partnership approach moderated the pace towards cost-cutting
measures and mass lay-offs through legal prevention mechanisms (i.e. social plans, early
retirement schemes), and the government enabled the adjustment via reskilling. By
contrast, in the United Kingdom, cost-cutting measures were not contained, and job losses
were accompanied by branch closures based on unilateral management decisions, which
in turn prompted union campaigning and local lobbying initiatives.
The rest of the article is structured as follows. The second section reviews recent
debates in the employment relations and sociological literature and sketches the con-
ceptual frame through which we can analyse the actors’responses to digitalisation. The
third section outlines the overall research design, case selection criteria, as well as the data
collection and analysis approach. The fourth section presents the ﬁndings from the
comparative case studies of BNP Paribas (Luxembourg) and HSBC (United Kingdom).
The ﬁnal section discusses the ﬁndings, outlines the contribution to the literature and
proposes avenues for further research.
2European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
Theoretical framework: A variety of adjustment paths
Conventional wisdom in the recent literature is playing up the probability of job losses
(i.e. displacement of labour by technology) as one of the likely effects of automation in the
next 10–20 years (Frey and Osborne, 2017). This is in line with the expected motivation
behind technological changes, to cut costs and improve efﬁciency and productivity.
However, a historical perspective suggests that earlier periods of intense technological
change have also shown that jobs disappear and at the same time new jobs appear
(Grimshaw, 2020). In addition, we should expect that the rate of job losses and reskilling
in technologically modernising sectors (Ilsøe, 2017) will depend inter alia on job security
legislation which varies cross-nationally corresponding to different historical paths of
employment and production regimes (Gallie, 2007:97–99).
Furthermore, the extent of job losses should also depend on the relative power dy-
namics of sectoral/local employment relations actors. As the ‘power-based’explanations
in industrial relations have shown (Benassi et al., 2016;Ibsen, 2015;Kornelakis and
Voskeritsian, 2018;Lloyd and Payne, 2021) the ability of trade unions to draw on their
resources is critical for their capacity to resist or accept organisational and institutional
changes. This institutional support for collective voice is critical, for instance, to en-
courage upskilling processes and practices (Doellgast, Holtgrewe, et al., 2009). This is
more likely to appear in settings with strong labour market actors who use their asso-
ciational power to produce public goods of training. But upskilling is also a process that
can take place ‘in-house’as part of internal labour markets (Grimshaw et al., 2001) and
reﬂect a strategic choice of employers to provide re-training for existing staff. In other
words, unions or strategic employer action can potentially counterbalance the techno-
logically induced decline in the real skill content of jobs.
Finally, the introduction of new digital technologies can lead to an increase in work
intensiﬁcation, for example, by altering the tempo and pace of work in the platform
economy, which is structured by algorithmic management (Gandini, 2019;O’Reilly et al.,
2018;Wood et al., 2019), by the request for universal availability and reachability through
mobile or virtual working (EU Economic and Social Committee, 2015) or by increased
monitoring and surveillance capabilities of new digital systems (Gandini, 2019). Sim-
ilarly, the power of the trade unions is quite important even in the platform economy,
where platform workers’power depends on organising to resist a degradation of working
conditions and to build solidarity (Borghi et al., 2021).
These works cast doubt to the perspective that the digitalisation dynamics and
technological developments would invariably lead to convergence in work organisation
and job losses. The technological unemployment thesis embodies a new ‘technological
determinism’that ignored the social shaping of technology (Holtgrewe, 2014) and ad-
justments to technology as socio-political choices (Grimshaw, 2020). Following this
frame of thinking, we also propose that technology is not deterministic, but socially
negotiated by key actors at various levels of governance and we hypothesise that any
change should reﬂect the ‘power resources’of the constellation of actors (Benassi et al.,
2016), who are able to shape a variety of adjustment paths to digitalisation.
Kornelakis et al. 3
Indeed, recent work suggests that there are strong national differences in union power
that affect the implementation of robotics and automation in the food processing industry
between the United Kingdom and Norway (Lloyd and Payne, 2021). Similar studies
suggest that resistance or acceptance of the digitalisation drives do vary across industrial
relations contexts in the European steel industry (Stroud et al., 2020). More speciﬁcally,
we hypothesise that distinct adjustment paths to digitalisation will also depend on the
support of the state (Doellgast, Nohara, et al., 2009) as well as the employers’associations
capacities and power (Brandl and Lehr, 2019;Kornelakis, 2014). Overall, the result of
interactions between the organisational-level strategies and sectoral level institutions and
collective actors should largely shape the trajectory of change in response to digitalisation.
Research design and methodology
Our overall research design follows the comparative case study approach (George and
Bennett, 2005). The choice to focus on the United Kingdom and Luxembourg is theo-
retically motivated: these countries are examples of two different models of capitalism with
distinct institutional conﬁgurations in their employment relations systems (Hall and
Soskice, 2001;Witt et al., 2018). On the one hand, the United Kingdom belongs to the
category of Liberal Market Economies (Gospel and Edwards, 2012), whereas Luxembourg
is identiﬁed as a country close to Coordinated Market Economies’neo-corporatist model
(Kirov and Thill, 2018). While distinct institutionally in the employment relations’realm,
both countries have a comparative advantage in the ﬁnancial services industry and operate
as global ﬁnancial hubs in Europe.
The selection of the banking sector as our sectoral context is based on the following
criteria. First, the sector has been central to debates on technology and industrial relations
for a long time. Already in the 1990s, the sector was introducing massively Automated
Teller Machines (ATMs), which was the ﬁrst step towards less reliance of clients on
networks of bank branches. This shift has been well documented in earlier work (Regini
et al., 1999) which showed how the introduction of new technologies essentially reshaped
the nature of work of banking employees, fragmented their career structures and pushed
their work towards greater attention to sales and performance.
Second, the sector is at the forefront of the most recent wave of technological change
in European services (Eurofound, 2014: 21). Several concurrent technological devel-
opments have a systemic impact on the sector, for example, the broadening of online and
mobile banking products, the focus on internet-mediated interaction with clients, the
implementation of artiﬁcial intelligence and bots, and the focus on Fintech and crypto-
currencies like the Bitcoin. Digitalisation is transversal, impacting not only back-ofﬁce
and IT services, but also the provision of front-line banking services with a mix of
online-mediated and ofﬂine activities and with the involvement (either cooperation or
competition) of new Fintech players to make operations faster and cheaper. Banks also
increasingly engage in the introduction of Robotic Process Automation (Lacity and
Willcocks, 2016). As a result, digital robots now can handle part of the customers’
queries, which has up until recently been conducted by bank employees, thus leading to
areconﬁguration of jobs in banks. The technological transformation in banking has
4European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
already impacted the number of branches and people. According to data from the
European Banking Federation, the number of branches has fallen by 31% since 2008
(EBF, 2020). In 2019, the United Kingdom counted more than 400,000 banking
employees compared to 430,000 in 2009, while in Luxembourg in 2010, the number of
employees was 26,146 or almost similar to the present day. At the EU level, the overall
evolution of the employees in the banks only over the last 10 years is alarming –from
over 3.1 million jobs in 2009, EBF counts 2.6 million in 2019.
Third, the sector remains relatively unionised at the cross-country level, with em-
ployees being represented by trade unions at company, sectoral, or national level
(Eurofound, 2019). The union density is similar in both countries, ranging between 20 and
25% according to the local unions’estimates. Employers’or business associations also
represent banks in several European countries. Collective bargaining and social part-
nership have therefore the potential to shape the process of technological adoption.
Therefore, the overall sectoral and institutional setting provides a very good context to
examine whether and how employment relations’institutions shape the responses to
Finally, we focus our analysis on two highly internationalised banks, HSBC and BNP
Paribas, which are also well-embedded in their domestic banking systems. Unlike other
local or regional banks, they have similar international pressures to digitalise and re-
structure and appear at the forefront of digitalisation. HSBC and BNP Paribas are the two
leading banks in Europe by total assets in 2020 (Statista, 2021) among the two largest
banks in Europe. Both banks are highly internationalised as HSBC’s network covers 64
countries and territories, while BNP Paribas’network covers 68 countries and territories.
The timeframe of the case studies is focused on restructuring initiatives in the ﬁve-year
period between 2014 and 2019.
Our data collection approach combines semi-structured interviews with key infor-
mants, analysis of data from Eurofound’s databases for restructuring EMCC and ERM,
and the collection of data from more than 40 documents, including internal documents,
meeting minutes, collective labour agreements, associations’press releases and industry
reports. The documentary analysis informed the research about the evolution of nego-
tiations in the sector, as well as the speciﬁc policies and positions of social partners
regarding digital transformation. We conducted a total of twelve semi-structured inter-
views following a common set of structured and open questions organised under themes.
Interviewees were focused on ‘elite informants’who had unique knowledge and per-
spective on the broader challenges affecting the sector. Our informants were senior
representatives in both countries of national and sectoral trade unions, employers’as-
sociations, staff delegates, managers and experts of banking sector developments. The
data collection process beneﬁted from the fact that interviewees had multiple ‘hats’and,
therefore, had a more holistic perspective. Interviews were conducted assuring ano-
nymity, lasted 1–1.5 h and took place between July 2019 and June 2021 (Table 1).
The interviews were either recorded with permission or notes were taken where
permission to record was not granted. All the data (primary sources, documents, and
interview notes and transcripts) were read iteratively with the literature themes and
processed via a thematic content analysis approach (Braun and Clarke, 2006). They were
Kornelakis et al. 5
interpreted and categorised using initial themes that emerged from the literature. The
themes were compared and contrasted with each other and with the literature so that
relations are established. Then they were reﬁned during the analysis and discussed within
the team to ensure validity. The main themes that organise our thematic analysis and
emerged from the literature and the data are the following: Digitalisation pressures and
disruption; job losses and branch downsizing; and skill-formation and training.
Digitalisation of service work in banks: Luxembourg and the
The institutional context in the banking sector of Luxembourg
Historically, the ﬁnancial sector has constituted one of the largest employers in Lux-
embourg. Employment in banking has remained relatively stable from 27.205 employees
in 2008 to 26.317 in 2018 despite that the number of banks (companies) decreased from
156 in 2007 to 127 in2019.
Luxembourg has a long tradition of multi-level collective
bargaining with corporatist institutions originating in the German Customs Union (We y,
2003) and consecutively enforced by laws in the 1970s instituting a national tripartite
collective bargaining arena as a crisis instrument. Each bargaining arena has a speciﬁc
mission based in law and conducted by a multitude of actors negotiating within a legal
framework and the government acting as a coordinator or legislator. One of the main
objectives of collective bargaining is to seek to prevent major unemployment levels.
Collective bargaining at sector level is embedded in a 2004 legal framework on
governing labour relations. This coexists with more informal practices between the
various bargaining levels, which is due to small administrative pathways and close re-
lations between the actors, and results in a common awareness regarding the volatility of
the sector in an international competitive environment and the resulting imperative to act
collectively in key economic sectors. Based on the right to sign collective labour
Table 1. List of interviews.
Interview # Organisation Function Date
1 LCGB/BGL BNP Paribas (LU) Senior trade union ofﬁcial 12 July 2019
2 ALEBA/BGL BNP Paribas (LU) Senior trade union ofﬁcial 10 July 2019
3 ABBL (LU) Senior employers’ofﬁcial 12 December 2019
4 Research Institute (LU) Senior expert 19 December 2019
5 BGL BNP Paribas (LU) Senior HR manager 12 February 2020
6 BGL BNP Paribas (LU) Senior T&D manager 12 February 2020
7 Unite Finance (UK) Senior trade union ofﬁcial 23 July 2019
8 Unite Finance (UK) Senior trade union ofﬁcial 24 July 2019
9 HSBC (UK) Senior HR manager 29 November 2019
10 HSBC (UK) Senior HR manager 14 January 2020
11 Research Institute (UK) Senior expert 7 September 2020
12 LCGB/BGL BNP Paribas (LU) Senior trade union ofﬁcial 3 June 2021
6European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
agreements (CLAs), the law-based employee representativeness in banking is endorsed
by the largest trade union the private Association Luxembourgeoise des Employ´
Banque et Assurance (ALEBA); followed by the OGBL Syndicat Banques et Assurances
(OGBL) sector union; and the Christian-democrat LCGB-Syndicat des Employ ´
Secteur Financier sector union.
On the employers’side, the Luxembourg Banker’s Association ABBL (Association
des Banques et Banquiers, Luxembourg) negotiates CLAs. Social partners negotiated the
latest CLA, which was signed in July 2018 after 18 months of negotiations. The
agreement details the wage rates for the six categories of personnel and includes an
increase of the allocated budget for training from 1% in 2018 to 1.5% in 2019 and 2020 of
the reference wage bill available for training purposes. These difﬁcult sector-level ne-
gotiations highlight a broader tendency in collective bargaining marked by conﬂict-ridden
agendas because of a diverging analysis of the socio-economic environment since the
At the company level regarding worker participation, a pooling of responsibilities
occurred in 2015 with a law on social dialogue that suppressed the works’councils
ed’entreprise) in larger companies and deﬁned the staff delegation (d´
personnel) in companies of more than 15 employees as the central negotiator. This latest
reconﬁguration also represents a major change in banking, as a trade unionist emphasises:
‘The staff delegation was the advocacy body and the joint committee was the co-management
body. Today the delegation has all the competences’(Interviewee 1, Senior Trade Union
Staff delegations continue to be composed of representatives elected among the
banking employees and include employees and trade union delegates. In banks with more
than 1000 employees, the staff are entitled to have representatives on the board.
Digitalisation pressures and disruption in the Banque G´
erale du Luxembourg
erale du Luxembourg BNP Paribas is a Luxembourg bank founded by
erale of Belgium in 1919 under the name of Banque G´
erale du Luxembourg
(BGL). Since May 2009, the bank has become a member of the BNP Paribas Banking
Group. More recently, the bank has witnessed a technological and digital transformation
reﬂected on projects such as the Direct Bank Initiative, which is responsible for remote
service activities and providing daily online banking solutions to customers. Other digital
business strategies included mobile banking with the launch of an iPhone mobile ap-
plication, the launch of its Digicash payment application for individuals, and the online
loan applications. Further investments in digital products were conducted at private
banking level with the MyPortfolio iPad app supplemented by a smartphone version. In
November 2015, due to cost considerations, the bank changed the historic core of its IT
system, called Mainframe by migrating all the data and applications to a new decen-
tralised platform (BGL BNP Paribas, 2015).
Kornelakis et al. 7
The cost factor in banks remains a fundamental and difﬁcult to anticipate issue of
concern. Interviewed employee representatives insist that while the digital products were
initially implemented to reduce costs, in fact, they have increased costs. This creates a
dilemma, as banks which do not invest at the right time for cost purposes into digital
products, face difﬁculties to remain competitive in an international market.
‘[Digitalisation] is expensive (…). If you are a manager of a bank, one has to know if you
have the necessary money to buy [digital products] or not. If you do not have the money, then
you wait another year to do the investment, but in digitalisation, time goes by so quickly, that
waiting could also make you lose money’. (Interviewee 2, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 10/
The digitalisation strategy of the bank is based on multi-channel distribution services
and products, through the telephone (call centres), the internet, the mobile and the
physical branches (Interviewee 5). The bank also has much more ‘data’and the big data
will be exploited gradually by employees who are more comfortable with digital tools. At
global level, BGL BNP Paribas works on 30 target proﬁles identiﬁed as jobs of the future.
To address this pressure, the bank launched a programme called Digital Data Agile
Academy (DDAA) and focused on training, skills and recruitment at the global level, but
also in Luxembourg. Examples of new and future jobs and professions include growth
hacker; data analysts; data scientists and agile project managers.
Moreover, in BNP BGP Paribas, as in the Luxembourg banks in general, increasing
pressure and competition have been witnessed by a growing industry of Fintech com-
panies. Fintech companies, including Amazon, eBay and PayPal, are regarded as a key
pillar of economic diversiﬁcation efforts. Representing both a competitive and invigo-
rating actor, Fintech companies have received the support of employer associations which
facilitated the cooperation between the banks and Fintech companies (Interview 3). They
have developed digital-based solutions traditionally offered by banks: from compliance
and risk-management, blockchain and cryptocurrency, security and authentication, au-
tomated investment services, Big Data analytics, to mobile and e-payments.
Job losses and branch downsizing in the Banque G´
erale du Luxembourg BNP
Over the years, there has been a general practice of the bank neither to dismiss employees
not to resort to social plans to avert mass lay-offs. This practice is traced back to industrial
relations in the sector in Luxembourg, characterised by a strong collaboration between the
three representative trades unions, which collaborate not only at the sector level but also at
the bank level. For BGL BNP Paribas, internal and tailor-made solutions discussed by the
management and staff representatives were identiﬁed in this research as viable alter-
natives. BGL BNP Paribas remains the ﬁfth largest employer in Luxembourg with a total
of 3.830 employees in 2020. Two major restructuring processes occurred in 2010 and
2014: in 2014, 170 employees beneﬁtted from voluntary early retirement schemes. The
number of employees decreased by 400 between 2013 and 2016.
Yet, the overall number
8European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
of employees has only decreased from 4060 in 2013 to 3830 in 2020. Similar to other
long-established banks in Luxembourg, BGL BNP Paribas has avoided to implement
mass dismissals and provoke employee insecurity. Unlike in the United Kingdom, before
proceeding to mass layoffs, banks generally comply with law-based, but cumbersomely
negotiated social plans that could fail if no agreement is achieved (Interview 12).
In the case of BGL BNP Paribas, job losses due to digitalisation dynamics and
offshoring of digital services were in the past cushioned by instruments such as voluntary
early retirement and reskilling schemes, internal mobility or tailor-made informal
practises, such as keeping the employee in the paid job until early retirement starts; or
favouring package-based voluntary exit. Even if occurring unevenly and with conﬂict-
ridden agendas in banking, staff representatives, with the expertise of trade unions as
background support, are involved and consulted in the negotiations of favourable
Nonetheless, branch closures have remained an integral part of cost-cutting strategies
before and after the 2010 international crisis. Closures have been limited in our case study
and followed a general strategy in the sector as a result of automation processes and a
decreasing attendance because clients increasingly accepted web-banking tools (Inter-
view 12). The branch closures have not led to dismissals, but employees moved to other
departments within the bank or branches. (Interview 5).
Furthermore, the insecurity encountered by handling technological change and
keeping up with the pace of digitalisation requires anticipation efforts from all involved
actors. This entails that employee representatives insist to reinforce awareness towards
stronger social responsibility from bank employers with the objective to avoid eco-
nomically driven layoffs. This strategy is highlighted by one of our interviewees:
‘If the employer’s policy is (…) not to go through dry redundancies (…) we have to an-
ticipate, we have to prepare employees’(Interviewee 1, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 12/
Beyond the avoidance of massive layoffs, as interviewees underline, the involvement
of employees through co-decision is a fundamental source of their power:
‘…it is an area that must go through co-decision (…) but if you are on the board of directors
of course you are in the process much earlier before any ﬁnal decision has already been taken,
then you can already negotiate’(Interviewee 1, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 12/07/2019).
Hence, employees in Luxembourg are empowered through worker participation,
including staff delegations and the information and consultation process, together with
boards in larger banks and the European Works Council. In a nutshell, the involvement of
collective voice institutions is fundamental in the adjustment process of Luxembourgish
banks to digitalisation.
Kornelakis et al. 9
Skill-formation and retraining in Banque G´
erale du Luxembourg BNP Paribas
A challenge for trade unions in banking is to address through efﬁciently mobilised
corporate instruments the employability and keeping in employment of staff. Our research
identiﬁes the deployment of compulsory and digital training schemes (Interview 2) at the
bank level as a bulwark against de-skilling processes. This strategy is identiﬁed as a
broadly applied neo-corporatist strategy, which requires the mobilisation of government
actors and funding schemes such as the National Employment Fund (Fonds pour
l’Emploi) and the appropriation by social partners who contribute with gained sector
An example is the New Digital Skills Bridge
pilot project initiated by the Ministry of
the Economy and the National Employment Agency (ADEM) under the supervision of
the tripartite Conjuncture Committee (Comit ´
e de conjoncture). After having consulted
their staff delegation, companies can apply for funding and assistance with the objective
to reskill employees by enhancing their digital competences that could favour their
reorientation and avoid their dismissal. Simultaneously, it provides the government with
an anticipation tool to measure the impact of digitalisation.
‘They [the government] are interested to see where tomorrow’s jobs are, where today’s skills
are, what tomorrow’s skills are going to be and try to see with us how we can participate in
this change by training our own people’(Interviewee 5, Senior HR Manager, 12/02/2020).
In addition to anticipation efforts, the reinforcement of training skills is a requirement
when banks face digital transformation processes. Training budgets in Luxembourg have
been substantially increased and employers together with employees deﬁne on an annual
basis training needs and elaborate annual career developments plans (plan de
eveloppement individuel de carrière). Supported by the government through the de-
ployment of subsidies if banks organise training, the sector employer association ABBL
has launched 16 digital skills courses organised by the House of Training of the Chamber
The institutional context of the banking sector in the United Kingdom
Employment relations in the United Kingdom banking sector have gone through a
turbulent period that spans the last four decades. In the mid-1980s, sectoral collective
bargaining broke down and the employers withdrew from national negotiations moving to
a decentralised system. The unions and staff associations in the sector went through a
period of instability that was characterised by industrial disputes and intense merger
activity (Morris et al., 2001). Since the late 1990s, the sector has become a prominent
example of the new style ‘partnership agreements’in UK employment relations
(Johnstone, 2016). Most of these agreements were established on the basis of bringing the
unions ‘back on board’to work through ongoing programmes of workforce restructuring
and organisational change, and to re-establish good and harmonious industrial relations
(Stuart and Lucio, 2008).
10 European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
The main trade union representing employees in the ﬁnance and insurance sector is
Unite the Union. It represents over 130,000 members throughout all major employers in
banking and insurance. More recently, the wave of mergers has continued and BSU
merged with Unite, DGSU merged with Nationwide Group Staff Union, UFS merged into
Community, while SURGE and YISA merged into Aegis.
There is no employer association, and the main business association is the UK Finance
that integrated the British Bankers Association (BBA). BBA was a trade association for
the UK banking sector with 200 member banks and did not engage in collective bar-
gaining. However, it was very active in shaping policy and practice as regards key issues
such as Brexit and digitalisation. Since 2017, the BBA merged with another ﬁve business
associations in the wider insurance and banking sector (Asset Based Finance Association,
Financial Fraud Action UK, Payments UK and the UK Cards Association) and has now
become UK Finance.
The estimated coverage in the sector is in the range of 20–25% (estimate by Unite) and
all collective agreements within the sector are agreed at the ﬁrm level. The four most
important ﬁrm-level agreements in terms of employees covered include those negotiated
between Unite and HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, and RBS. The scope of collective bargaining
agreements encompasses issues such as: Equality, appraisal, ﬂexible working, recruit-
ment, disciplinary and performance systems.
Digitalisation pressures and disruption in HSBC UK
Technological change was quite important in the 2000s reﬂecting the shifts towards phone
banking and Internet banking (Stuart and Lucio, 2008). More recently, the major shift has
occurred towards mobile banking leading to fewer people using the branches (HSBC,
2017). HSBC has rolled out a ‘hugely ambitious’digital transformation programme since
2015 and on 9 June 2015, HSBC announced plans to axe 25,000 jobs globally and
radically re-structure, so as to achieve up to $5 billion in transformational cost savings.
Increased digital and self-service capabilities would enable the bank to axe around 2000–
3000 existing service roles. The attribution of these restructuring initiatives has been
largely based on the shifts in consumer behaviour towards mobile banking and fewer
needs to visit local branches (BBA, 2015).
In addition, the new players from the Fintech sector, such as Atom, Starling and
Revolut, are challenging the incumbents. In the past, the segments between the boundaries
of the sector were redrawn with the entrance of large retailers such as Tesco Bank (Stuart
and Lucio, 2008). In recent years, the appearance of Fintech has accelerated digitalisation
and has intensiﬁed the competitive pressures further disrupting the banking industry. The
new players are not only innovating, but they are also cost leaders because unlike the large
banks which have tens of thousands of employees, the new players have only a few
hundreds of employees, which gives them a huge advantage in terms of cost-base
Finally, digitalisation pressures are associated with the new capabilities of automation
of work processes due to progress in artiﬁcial intelligence software. HSBC is, for ex-
ample, already using AI technology to process documents related to international trade. At
Kornelakis et al. 11
the time when the bank announced this in 2017, about 100 million pages of documents,
such as invoices and insurance documents, were manually reviewed and processed by
staff. Instead, now using optical character recognition (OCR) and robotics technology,
HSBC’s Global Trade and Receivables Finance (GTRF) automates the review of doc-
uments and then sends them automatically to the bank’s transaction processing systems.
While this improves accuracy and gives staff more time to do ‘value-adding activities’,it
also makes such manual roles redundant.
Job losses and branch downsizing in HSBC UK
Since 2011, the job reductions have involved more than 11,000 jobs, while the job
creation for the same period was around 1500 jobs (European Monitoring Centre on
Change, 2020). HSBC UK remains the fourth largest bank in the United Kingdom (after
Lloyds, Barclays and RBS) and currently has 625 branches. The number of branches has
more than halved in the period 2011–2017, with its high street presence in June 2011
standing at 1301 branches (The Guardian, 2017). The most important restructuring event
took place in the period 2015–2017. HSBC announced the implementation of a massive
restructuring plan that affected 7–8000 British jobs by 2018, and this would see the end of
a three-year restructuring plan (The Guardian, 2017).
The combined workforce in retail and commercial banking in the United Kingdom
dropped from 37,901 employees in 2015 to 30,805 in 2018 (HSBC, 2019). The dis-
appearing roles can be attributed to two processes that run in parallel: Offshoring and
‘…at the time they announced it they were 38,000 job losses worldwide, but of those a good
8,000 in the UK, most of those were IT workers, and they had this massive programme of
investment in technology, named something like “Earth and Moon”, many of them lost their
jobs, for many of them they lost their jobs because they went to India or China, just because
they were cheaper to do. There was some automation in some of that. (…) This had nothing to
do with the branch closures.’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 24/07/19)
Overall, the bank shifted about 5000 operational roles to low-cost locations, including
software development roles. On the software development front, 50% was being done in
India and China and that percentage increased to 75% under the new strategy.
In parallel another 3000 roles were automated in the United Kingdom (Diginomica,
2015). The digitalisation and automation process included inter alia: Implementing tools
for front-line staff to make better use of their time; automating more operations to get
more out of high-quality low-cost service centres; increase use of agile development;
elimination of legacy systems; use of cloud platforms for non-business critical systems
(e.g. HR); reduce in-country data warehouses (Diginomica, 2015). Interestingly, the
discourse around digitalisation concerns more the impact on consumer behaviour (using
online banking, smartphone banking, etc.) and less on the automation of work of em-
ployees. As one informant said:
12 European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
‘The digital disruption is mostly outward looking changing the customer-facing functions,
such as online banking, mobile banking etc. Internally, the workplace is less digitalised,
banks have moved from customised IT solutions to proprietary solutions moving to the cloud
relying on the Big Three [Oracle, Workday, SAP].’(Interviewee 9, Senior HR Manager, 29/
The immediate effect of the change in customer behaviour has intensiﬁed restructuring
leading to branch downsizing. According to employers, the branches are supposed to be
now ‘right-sized’, but as one union informant said:
‘Well, until recently, in most branch closures, the next branch has been 5 miles, 10 miles, 2
miles away, so people have been able to move, and instead of working here, they now work
there. So that works ﬁne for most people. So in fact, until recently, there weren’t many
redundancies from branch closures. But now that branches, particularly in rural areas, the
number is so small, that if you decide to close a branch in the Scottish Highlands, the next
nearest branch might be 50 or 60 miles away. Well obviously that person can’t now work in
the other branch instead, so they are made redundant.’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union
But even this branch downsizing, which is direct outcome of online banking, does not
lead to signiﬁcant redundancies. The branch closures are largely dealt with a combination
of redeployment into other branches and internal mobility where possible or voluntary
‘If you are in a branch and it’s closing you can either move to the next nearest branch or you
leave, there’s nothing else of course, because there’s nowhere else to work. If you are in a big
ofﬁce, like Canary Wharf, and your job is being affected because part of it is going to India,
well then there’s opportunities for redeployment for other jobs in the bank. But you can’tdo
that if you are just in one branch on your own.’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial,
On the collective bargaining front, the union has been working in partnership with the
banks and there is regular consultation for changes. There is a process of annual/regular
negotiation and agreement of wages at company level with the ‘Big Four’although that
does not lead to formal contracts.
‘We have collective bargaining agreements [with the Big Four] on all matters of terms and
employment, and we are consulted on restructuring etc. What tends to happen is that because
we have long-standing working relationship, we have almost day-to-day interactions. The
discussions include all matters of terms and employment, e.g, grievance, sickness absence,
pay salaries, hours of work, job security, bonus arrangements, pensions,’(Interviewee 7,
Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 23/07/19).
Kornelakis et al. 13
In contrast to Luxembourg, there is not so much anticipation of change or a sectoral
response to digitalisation. The main exception is a Toolkit for local branch closure that
Unite published recently. There are however consultations and open communication
channels with other actors in the sector, such as the UK Finance (incl. British Bankers
‘We meet with UK Finance twice a year and we are discussing issues such as gender pay, gap,
executive pay, we always talk about branches. But there is no formal relationship. (…)Inan
ideal world we would have sector-level bargaining and we would be negotiating at sector
level for terms and conditions, like a basic ﬂoor, and maybe we do that we the equivalent of
the BBA (…) But it’s Labour Party policy to have sector-level bargaining, so under a Labour
government that’s the sort of thing that could come back’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union
The changes are employer-led and the unions are on the responsive mode. The union
ﬁnds it hard to resist technological change per se, it is difﬁcult to make the argument
‘Employment has been on the decrease in banks, mainly because of the ﬁnancial crisis, and
now with technology changes it’s very hard to put up a ﬁght against, for example, branch
closure. So there’s a high street bank branch that is closing, it’s closing because people don’t
go there so much anymore, and they don’t go there so much anymore, because they all do
their banking on their smartphone or online. It’s very difﬁcult to have an argument against
that.’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 24/07/19).
One of the achievements of the unions was to negotiate a generous severance package
(on top of legal minima) for dismissed employees and actually, that becomes attractive
and incentivises senior employees to follow the route of voluntary exits.
‘But the other element is that whenever there’s these job losses because of stuff like that
[technology], getting members to actually want to take [industrial] action is quite a big step
(…) partly because they don’t see themselves as that kind of person, they are conservative
with a small c, but also because there’s a big number of employees who always see re-
dundancy as a right, you know, I’ve worked for this God-awful bank for 30 years and now I
am just waiting to be made redundant so I can get my redundancy package. (…) And this is
one of the sad facts about having negotiated a good redundancy agreement, is that whenever
there’s job losses, we often get people who are kind of queuing up to be made redundant we
are not campaigning for you to be made redundant.’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union
In response to the persisting branch closures across the banking sector, Unite launched
a campaign in late 2019 to save bank branches, emphasising the detrimental impact on
local communities, older customers with no access to mobile banking and SME. At the
14 European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
same time, Unite developed the Bank Branch Closure Tool Kit as a guide to anticipate
change and help local branches to ﬁght back for their survival.
Skill-formation and retraining in HSBC UK
Training and reskilling measures are wholly at the discretion of the employers. One
impact of digital transformation is that it shifts demand to new digital skills, which are in
shortage in the sector and there is no way to ﬁnd them in the external labour market:
‘However, to fully harness the possibilities of these solutions one needs to have change in the
culture/mind-set, operations and capabilities. Some of the digital skills of the workforce are
missing (data science, analytics, digital customer experience) and these cannot be found in
the external labour market, they cannot be ‘recruited away’, but can only be developed in-
house.’(Interviewee 9, Senior HR Manager, 29/11/19).
The skills shortages are exacerbated by the lack of any government funding, in sharp
contrast to the case of Luxembourg. Until recently, unions’voice and BBA’s voice were
represented in a tripartite body called the Financial Services Skills Council, which ad-
dressed the issue of skills and lifelong learning within the UK banking sector (Stuart and
Lucio, 2008). However, this body has become defunct and has not been replaced by
another structure in recent years. The Financial Services Skills Council funding was cut as
part of austerity programmes in the Conservative governments.
‘The Financial Services Skills Council basically was taken over by the Legal Skills Council
but when all the funding was cut by the government I have never heard anything from them’.
(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 24/07/19).
On the bright side, one of the positive consequences of digitalisation in automating dull
and repetitive tasks is also acknowledged here. As one informant said:
‘We have had at the EWC and the UK level discussions about digitalisation plans and we are
also included in consultation of change, for example, Invoice Finance. […] It is a fairly dull
job’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 24/07/19).
Some processes that were mentioned as examples (e.g. Automatic processing of email
invoices) seem to be positive developments, they do not extinguish –in the short run –
whole jobs, just remove some repetitive tasks, also contributing to job quality.
‘What they have come up with is what they call a robot, which will read these invoices, and
then populate the computer system, meaning that there is no employees needed. (…) They
think they can get a high accuracy, or higher than people, to do that speciﬁc job. If you try to
expand out into some of the more complicated jobs, it’s going to be quite a long time before
you get to that stage’(Interviewee 8, Senior Trade Union Ofﬁcial, 24/07/19).
Kornelakis et al. 15
Comparative discussion and conclusion
The case studies enhanced the plausibility of the argument that embedded employment
relations’institutions and actors shape the direction of adjustment paths to digitalisation.
Although the market and technological pressures (Batt et al., 2009) in both countries’
services sectors were rather severe, the ultimate process of work restructuring varied. In
both countries, the banks had to adjust to the massive introduction of online and mobile
banking, the automation of processes, and the entry of new Fintech players in the sector;
similar systemic legacies; and new tight regulations following the 2008/9 global ﬁnancial
In Luxembourg, the adjustment to digital transformation was not left entirely to market
forces. Instead, the unions and the employers relied on sectoral bargaining, informal
tailor-made solutions and the mobilisation of law-based neo-corporatist tools, such as
social plans, to shape the direction of change towards a softer transition and avoiding mass
lay-offs. Collective labour agreements acted as institutional constraints (Doellgast,
Holtgrewe, et al., 2009) to convergence and a technology-driven race to bottom. In-
stead, policies such as internal mobility and increase in the spending for retraining
constituted avenues to cushion digital transformation effects and maintain job quality for
employees. The role of the state (Doellgast, Nohara, et al., 2009) was also critical, as the
social partners were able to tap on the resources of the state and engage in extensive
reskilling and retraining programmes. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, the supporting
role of the state (Doellgast, Nohara, et al., 2009) is missing, as the government withdrew
its support for the institution of sectoral skill formation that could facilitate reskilling. This
exacerbated the legacy of broken-down sectoral bargaining and created an institutional
void. The adjustment to digitalisation was unilaterally employer-led with the union
mainly being informed about planned changes; and fragmented responses such as union
campaigning against local branch closures.
Overall, our analysis highlights the persisting importance of institutional differences
and ‘power resources’(Benassi et al., 2016;Ibsen, 2015;Lloyd and Payne, 2021) and
how they are also relevant to moderate the wide-ranging effects of digitalisation. Al-
though digitalisation pressures were similar, the persisting institutional differences in
regard to the role of the state in supporting reskilling (Doellgast, 2010) and capacities of
employers’associations (Brandl and Lehr, 2019) for consensual bargaining explains the
degree and path of adjustment.
Finally, our analysis suggests that the driving force of job losses is still offshoring
rather than automation and digitalisation, at least for now, and concurs with the per-
spective that expected job losses due to automation are exaggerated (Grimshaw, 2020).
Previous waves of technological change in the banking sector, such as the introduction of
ATMs and debit cards, transformed the career structures and refocused jobs on per-
formance and sales, but did not have a severe impact on levels of employment (Regini
et al., 1999). By contrast, this wave of digitalisation is accompanied by branch downsizing
and job losses. The jobs are not changing, but they are moving elsewhere. Yet, the
differences between liberal and coordinated models of capitalism (Batt et al., 2009;Witt
et al., 2018) are still important while sectoral speciﬁcities also matter (Lloyd and Payne,
16 European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)
2021). Further research could helpfully enrich this debate by examining the role of
collective voice institutions in shaping digitalisation in other country contexts and white-
collar services sectors.
Declaration of Conﬂicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: This research has beneﬁted from partial funding from a Visiting Scholar
research scheme from the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) and a small
grant from the King’s College London SSPP Research Fund.
Andreas Kornelakis https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1569-3367
Vassil Kirov https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9004-1604
Patrick Thill https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6415-9748
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Kornelakis et al. 19
Andreas Kornelakis is a Senior Lecturer in International Management at King’s
Business School, King’s College London and Associate Fellow of the ESRC-funded
Digital Futures at Work Research Centre, University of Sussex and Leeds. His research
interests include: digitalisation of service work and comparative employment relations.
Vassil Kirov is Associate Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology,
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IPS-BAS). His research focus is on the digital trans-
formation and future of work.
Patrick Thill is a social and political scientist at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-
Economic Research (LISER) in Luxembourg. His research interests include the Euro-
peanisation of employment policies and relations, EU integration and governance, youth
unemployment and digitalisation.
20 European Journal of Industrial Relations 0(0)