Topic Cluster: Technology

Technological innovation has always been a part of the world of work, however in the past 20 years the internet has enabled dramatic and exponential increases in the pace of change. With the advent of the “Internet of Things”, the number of devices connected to the internet is expected to reach more than 20bn by 2020. Nevertheless, around 50% of the world’s people still do not have access to the internet. With much of the new technology coming into the world of work dependent either directly or indirectly on the internet, unless there is massive and rapid investment in connecting the remaining 50%, there will be a huge increase in inequality between the internet “haves” and “have-nots”, with dramatic economic and social consequences.

“Advances in technology and the expansion of internet access create enormous opportunities and challenges for working people. Union engagement in education, training and organising in the internet age is crucial. The ITUC is committed to internet governance which is free from domination by any government or corporate interest, and which ensures the free flow of information with strong protections for personal information and freedom of speech subject to the rule of law.”
Congress Statement of the 3rd ITUC World Congress (Berlin, May 2016)

Advances in robotics, nano- and bio-technology, machine learning, the Internet of Things and 3D printing in manufacturing, materials science and a host of other areas will deliver enormous benefits to society, and are already doing so in a number of areas, such as health and tackling climate change. At the same time, these advances will have profound consequences on employment and on workers. Some estimate that, over time, around 60% of jobs could be partially automated, with up to 10% of jobs being displaced altogether. Others forecast even greater impacts. Virtually all the studies show that lower-skilled or routine intensive jobs are most at risk, however there will also be impacts on more highly skilled occupations.

The TUAC document “Digitalisation and the Digital Economy” gives a good overview of the key issues, a number of which are highlighted in the following. While the specific impacts of various technologies in different sectors and occupations varies considerably and will continue to do so, there are a number of key overall trends and risks that, from a global perspective, are not being properly addressed:

  • Digitalisation is contributing to fragmentation of work, breakdown of employment relationships and social dumping, as companies which organise work through online platforms (e.g. “ride-sharing” such as Uber and piece-work services such as Mechanical Turk and UpWork,) seek to expand and as they lobby effectively for deregulation. Governments need to ensure that these companies are regulated, that they pay a fair share of tax and that the people who work for them and with them have the same rights as other workers including through portable entitlements to social protection, pensions and other benefits;
  • Significant skills gaps are emerging, limiting the potential for replacement of jobs lost to technology by new jobs which have higher IT, STEM or service content. These skills gaps need to be addressed through education and training systems that are in tune with the evolution of work in the digital age;
  • Increasing reliance on digitally-mediated production and services requires high levels of cybersecurity to protect systems and avoid disruption. This poses particular challenges in ensuring that workers’ rights are not infringed, and also in ensuring that the growing skills gap in this field is addressed;
  • For increasing numbers of workers, the “total surveillance workplace” is now a reality, with continuous and intrusive monitoring which sometimes extends beyond the workplace into private lives and gives employers unprecedented control. Some companies are also using social engineering techniques on their workforce to increase productivity and profits, but without commensurate increases in pay or protection from overwork and stress. This is linked to the overall issue of people’s rights concerning data about them, especially as a small number of “big data” corporations consolidate and expand their influence;
  • The blurring of private life and life at work is also a reality for many, with disruption of work/life balance and often extra hours worked without compensation, especially in mobile work;
  • Occupational and public health and safety standards are often not sufficient or sufficiently enforced as automation is deployed, frequently using poorly-tested algorithms, and as new materials are used in production processes;
  • There is a pronounced gender gap in the information technology sector in particular, with women accounting for only around one-quarter of jobs. This gap is worsening where “old” jobs are being replaced with “new” jobs which have higher technology content, with women having as little as 20% chance of finding a “new” job compared to men. Urgent attention to this problem, including through education and training as well as anti-discrimination measures and maternity benefits, is required;
  • The limitations of and potential damage caused by the deployment of algorithms, in particular with little or no human involvement, are becoming increasingly apparent. UNI Global Union is calling for the establishment of a global convention on the ethical use, development and deployment of artificial intelligence, algorithms and big data ; and,
  • Developments such as the deployment of “blockchain” or distributed ledger technology by businesses in a number of sectors are likely to have unpredictable but potentially substantial impacts on the way businesses operate and on the nature of jobs in the future. Trade unions need to increase their understanding of the possible effects and uses of such systems, both in terms of the evolution of work and in potential uses of them by unions themselves to reach and organise workers.

All workers must have the fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, protection from discrimination, exploitation and hazardous work, the assurance of a living minimum wage and social protection in the new world of work. Online platforms in particular must be required to ensure that workers’ social protection and other entitlements are met, and that their rights are respected.

The TUAC document “Digitalisation and the Digital Economy” sets out the key principles for ensuring a “digital just transition”. These include:

  • Research and early assessment of social and employment impacts
  • Social dialogue and democratic consultation of social partners and stakeholders
  • Active labour market policies and regulation, including training and skills development
  • Social protection, including securing of pensions
  • Community renewal and economic diversification plans
  • Sound investments leading to high quality, decent jobs.

Achieving a digital just transition will be challenging, in particular as many governments show no real inclination to ensure proper regulation of the digital economy or to protect and promote workers’ rights to social dialogue and bargaining collectively. Meeting that challenge will be central to ensuring the maximum social and economic benefits of digitalisation and avoiding a dystopian corporate free-for-all of yet greater inequality, insecurity and exploitation.