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Digitisation and the future of work: what it means for unions
Will robots take all the jobs? This dystopian question, prompted by the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – an umbrella term encompassing Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and the ‘Internet of Things’ – has prompted a lively debate in recent years.
Digitisation is seen by some as simply the next wave of technological progress, but there is a nagging fear that things could be different this time. New technology has always been accompanied by concerns of jobs being lost, but whilst jobs have indeed been lost, more new ones have been created. The big policy challenge – which was sometimes met successfully, other times not – was to ensure that those losing the ‘old’ jobs had the skills and the possibilities to undertake the ‘new’ ones.
What sets the fourth industrial revolution apart is that by machines interacting remotely, the middle man or woman, usually a skilled worker, could find themselves replaced. As my colleague Helen noted in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, two economists, Frey and Osborne, argued in 2013 that a colossal 47% of US jobs could be at risk due to computerisation. Frey and Osborne’s work has been strongly challenged, but the policy risk is still a big one.
Needless to say, digitisation is a key challenge for trade unions. Last week I joined colleagues from the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD at an event in Paris entitled ‘Digitisation and the Future of Work’. Much food for thought was provided – below I set out some of the big issues.
How big is the challenge?
The first thing to consider is: how big a challenge is digitisation? Andrew Wyckoff, Director for Science, Technology and Innovation at the OECD described a period of technologically induced structural change that is moving at an exponential rate. This is leading to economic properties of “scale without mass”.
When Henry Ford sought a world presence for his automotive business, he had to put plants in countries across the globe. Contrast this with WhatsApp – with just 55 employees, but a global presence. This underlines the scale of the change taking place. As things stand, we have technological change happening very quickly with societal and political change struggling to keep up. That gap is creating discontent and worry about the future. A key question, then, is how to close the gap.
Damon Silvers, Policy Director of the US trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, accepted that fundamental changes are taking place in the economy, but argued that we could have said that at any time since 1750. It’s not the technology that matters, he said, it is the political economy around the technology that matters. We need to reject technological pessimism; technology is good, but only when it is allied to just social and political arrangements. The issue behind this is one of power.
‘Power’ resides in places that we might expect – and in places that we might not. Unions are familiar with the concept of employers having power, but now data and intellectual property are powerful in their own rights. As Andrew Wyckoff told the conference: “We used to say ‘follow the money’. Now we say, ‘follow the data’.”
Just transition to the digital economy
So how should trade unions respond to these fast moving changes? Brian Kohler of the global manufacturing union argued that a ‘just transition’ to a digital economy is now necessary (he first coined the term used in relation to sustainable industry). For him, there are three elements to a just transition to a digital economy:
- Sustainable industrial policy. All countries have industrial policies (including those who deny that they have them). Industrial policies are designed to pursue certain patterns of growth, and sometimes to discourage other patterns. A sustainable industrial policy should not just concern itself with greening industry, important though that is. To be sustainable, an industrial policy must balance social, economic and environmental considerations;
- Robust social protections for workers, shielding their families and their communities – including their trade unions – from the difficulties generated by the transition;
- Creative labour adjustments, which address the needs and aspirations of workers: society benefits from people doing what they want to do and unions have to address job blackmail, a situation where workers are forced to accept an undesirable change on the threat of losing their jobs. Kohler said: “We can’t retrain Newfoundland fisherman to program computers. It doesn’t work; it never has worked.”
Bernhard Weischke of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD offered employers’ perspectives, noting that SMEs are anxious of a “reflex of anxiety” around digitalisation that could lead to too much regulation. Innovation must be protected, a fact to be borne in mind when considering reforms to intellectual property law. According to Weischke, companies understand their role in bringing people up to speed with technological change.
From the World Economic Forum, Saadia Zahidi told the conference that her organisation was planning work over the coming year to consider what jobs are likely to be developed in the future, what skills will be needed and how realistic it is to enable workers from other industries to take those new jobs. Responding to Brian Kohler, she said we need to balance workers’ desires about future jobs and the re-training they need with the jobs that employers and the economy will create.
Where unions fit in
TUAC is drawing up elements of a trade union response to digitisation, based around the idea of a just transition set out by Brian Kohler. Elements of that response might include:
- Sound investments leading to low-emission, high-quality, decent jobs
- Research and early assessment of social and employment impacts
- Social dialogue and democratic consultation of social partners and stakeholders
- Active labour market policies, including training and skills development
- Social protection, including the securing of pensions
- And community renewal and economic diversification plans.
A key role for trade unions is clearly important. Thiebaut Weber, Confederal secretary of the ETUC, told the conference that collective bargaining is necessary to share the wealth created by digital technology. Pascal Pavageau of the French union confederation Force Ouvriere said that 93% of employees in France are covered by a collective agreement or have special status, the highest level in the world. Even if you are not a union member, you are covered by the agreement for your sector. This could be very important as workers become more vulnerable. Valerio De Stefano of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) stressed that the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work enshrined at the ILO, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, will have an important role to play.
Universal Basic Income?
Finally, the debate about digitisation is fundamentally linked with the one about a universal basic income. If the dystopian vision set out at the beginning of this post, i.e. that robots take all the jobs, were to come to pass, an economy based on jobs and wages would be impossible. Clearly robots will not take all the jobs; a more realistic question is whether they will take so many jobs that the expectation of wage earning for all who can work is no longer realistic.
The debate about a universal basic income is new and the TUC has an open mind at this stage, but delegates to the conference were sceptical. Damon Silvers said this strips way the dignity of work. Pascal Pavageau said it would institutionalise and justify a new economy of poor workers.
What is clear to me is that moves towards a digital economy must be accompanied by a new commitment from government, employers and trade unions to an economy based on full employment and good jobs. This has been missing from debates about industrial policy up until now, but as the TUC has argued, it has been central to industrial policies of countries as diverse as Germany and China. It should be at the heart of Theresa May’s economic programme and will be a major call from the TUC in the months and years to come.