Digitalisation: a challenge for the global trade union movement

 

Digitalisation is a wide and multifaceted phenomenon and impacts on working conditions in a very different way on the basis of the country, the clusters of workers and industries and even within these groups. Its outcomes can be influenced by the role played by the social actors. Trade unions, at all levels, should aim at leading the process.

It would be misleading to focus the debate only on how many jobs robotisation will destroy and how many it will create. This debate would hide the discussion on the quality of work, and does not take into consideration what stakeholders can do in influencing trends or even reverse them.

One of the challenges is to make the opportunities of digitalisation available also to the millions of workers that are still excluded from the digital society.

The wider perspective of the society we want to live in has not to be neglected: the reduction of the working time and its redistribution, with pay rises due to an increasing productivity is, for example, a topic to focus on, when assessing the quantitative “effects” of digitization. And we very much know that the rise of digitisation opens new challenges for our democracies: on one side, more people can access information and have freedom to express; on the other, digital can also be a tool for misinformation and surveillance.

It’s necessary to understand how digitization impacts on markets. Global value chains become more and more integrated by digitization, thanks to dramatic transformations in logistics and the possibility to connect industries, companies, consumers all over the world.

The international trade union confederation and the global union federations must monitor the global value chains, struggling for fairer conditions for all, because a decision taken in the headquarters of a company of the global value chain, has significant impacts on the organization of work and on the working conditions in companies located in other countries.

Even in the same company, being it a micro-multinational or a giant multinational such as the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), the governance is often centralised but the system managing human capital and labour is often at the national level. The gap, that splits time, actors and place where decisions are taken from where they produce their effect, has to be properly managed.

An example is the platform economy: the algorithm that “determines” the organization of work and related conditions (e.g. ranking of workers, working time, wage, etc.) is often centrally programmed (e.g. the Silicon Valley), without taking into consideration the consequences produced in other contexts – or, all the more so, the effects on labour in general. It is not enough to act at the national level, it’s necessary to bargain on the inputs given to the algorithm, in terms of values, variables to be considered and patterns among them.

Collective bargaining structure and tools have to be updated to the global economy, and this is not an easy task.

To achieve the necessary strength and capacity for such a challenge, it’s necessary to improve training of unionists, representation and unionisation of workers, both in quantity and quality, for the entire global working class. We also need institutions which are able to govern a globalised and digitised economy. One century after its creation, the ILO should design and implement new regulatory tools aligned with the reality of the contemporary economy, extending and recognising fundamental rights to the new workers, and acknowledging the international structure of industrial relationships.

It’s necessary to reach workers in remote areas and online, to rely on them for establishing global networks and develop their sensitivity and experience on the working conditions of people working together from all over the world, using digital tools to our own advantage.

As an example, to illustrate the functioning of the economic and social systems: the economy is global, but the two main tools at the service of the redistribution of wealth and social justice – taxation/fiscal systems and representation of labour – are still national. This creates a race to the bottom among states to compete by reducing taxes and labour rights.

We need to change our strategy, taking advantage of technological innovation to reach this goal, turning upside down the common approach on this topic: the real challenge for trade unions in digitization is to promote the use of technology to answer the main – and many – global challenges (e.g. climate change) and to build the world we want our children to live in.

We, as trade unions, have to guard and control where and how innovation is developed and where and how it is applied, to have a voice not only on its ex post effects on labour and society, but also on the decisions taken upstream.

This is the only way to make the difference and we have to act at the global level as well as in the tech companies.

There’s no conclusion to this story, digitization will not save us all and apocalyptic scenarios are misleading as well. We have to work to play an active role in the process, for decent working and living conditions and a fairer society all over the world.

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