Future of Work: How should we respond?

Dr Salomé Teuteberg

Future of Work: How should we respond?

The future of work is not only a concern at the workplace but also on a national level. As automation increases those with inadequate skills may lag behind and unemployment rates could soar. In national debates, the potential loss of jobs brings forward arguments for compensatory measures (guaranteed basic income and wealth redistribution), legislation protecting the rights of workers (realistic minimum levels of pay and benefits, restoring a decent work-life balance, and removing the impediments to union organising) and ensuring sufficient (re-)training especially for low qualified workers (Arntz et al., 2016; Hodgson, 2016; Wright, 2018).
Labour, civil society, the private sector and government are key stakeholders in developing a skills transition or relevant compensation measures. However, it’s crucial that labour acknowledge these issues and work towards national campaigns to ensure pro-active debates and change. In the absence of such pro-active action and policies, the tendency of capitalism to exacerbate income inequality will increase. With regards to the future of work and bargaining in the workplace, the 2018 MNC Trends Report highlighted four areas that deserve attention.

Explore and organise the value chain

The first is the need for trade unions to revisit the way in which they organise through acknowledging the broader value chains in which they operate. Although the focus of a union is the workplace, broader value chains and the dissemination of power are starting to play a more prominent role. Knowing where and how a company is situated in a value chain can help the trade union understand how to best negotiate for better pay or conditions of work. Revisiting strategies will have to be done on a step-by-step basis, but will start, for example, through a retail worker looking beyond their own workplace at something such as distribution centres that influence the functioning of the company as a whole.

Use technology to your advantage

The second concerns the way in which unions themselves will make use of technology. Technology use in unions will become increasingly necessary for targeting the broader value chains along which companies operate. Big NGOs and consumer movements in the Global North have mobilised against big retailers or companies, and this poses a challenge for unions.  Should unions start thinking of alliances with quite different organisations or should they start making use of technology to expand their own campaigns? These are but a few questions that stand to be answered.

Expand the traditional role of unions

The third relates to the expansion of the traditional role of unions. Traditionally trade unions focus on issues such as wage increases, benefits and working conditions during negotiations. Going forward, automation in the workplace will require an increased focus on issues relating to “education, training, and legal support in an increasingly complex environment” (Hodgson, 2016: 213). If the fourth industrial revolution is to result in a positive effect on employment, the reskilling of the workforce is pivotal.

Avoid employer tactics

The fourth issue speaks to the tactics employers will implement to start reshaping their workforce towards automation and a more flexible workforce. During bargaining, employers will try to bring clauses in agreements that ensure that a company has no restriction on its right to sub-contract, or clauses that will allow employers to sub-out the warehousing and delivery services to a drone operation that can do it more cost-effectively because their associates’ labour costs are negligible.
There is no doubt that the world of work will be altered from how we currently know it. While we acknowledge these changes, we also emphasise that the fourth industrial revolution is context-dependent and that the effect could be different in a developing country compared to a developed country. The question becomes less to what extent employers will try to replace humans with machines, but rather to what extent they will want to employ a more flexible workforce without commitments towards social protection and decent wages.
Going forward, employers will increasingly try to structure their employment contracts to accommodate the transition to a more flexible workforce. Within bargaining processes unions’ negotiators should thus focus on ensuring clauses such as the following:
  • Guaranteed minimum working hours
  • Job guarantees for the length of the CBA
  • Restrictions on staff dismissals
  • Restrictions on sub-contracting
  • Protection of non-permanent workers
  • Education and training (including re-skilling to meet new skills demands)
Change has been inevitable throughout history. However, there is no reason why change can’t be accommodated for adequate social protection, compensation measures and/or training and (re)skilling opportunities for workers. Bargaining is a pivotal tool in ensuring workers receive protection and would gain immensely from being supported by broader support and awareness campaigns. Capacity building to equip negotiators to bargain in complex environments is crucial. Employers will increasingly try to by-pass any responsibilities in the changing nature of work. Should this become the norm, the tendency of capitalism to exacerbate income inequality will increase.
  • Arntz, M., Gregory, T. and Zierahn, U. 2016. “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 189, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlz9h56dvq7-en
  • Hodgson, G. M. 2016. The Future of Work in the Twenty-First Century. JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC ISSUES. Vol. L No. 1 March 2016. DOI 10.1080/00213624.2016.1148469
  • Wright, M. J. 2018. The Changing Nature of Work. AJPH SPECIAL SECTION: WORK. March 2018, Vol 108, No. 3)

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