Technology has always dramatically disrupted the world of work and social relations. We are going through a major phase of technological development that some are calling Industry 4.0. What does is mean for the world of work?

Robots in the car industry cost jobs but also lower the cost of cars. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Robots in the car industry cost jobs but also lower the cost of cars. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the rise of the machines

There has been a lot of talk recently about the fourth industrial revolution – indeed, it was the theme of the World Economic Forum meeting of international business and political leaders in Davos in January 2016.

It remains to be seen whether the hype withstands scrutiny, but there certainly are rapid technological changes that are likely to dramatically change the way we work. So what is the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0?

The first industrial revolution was the development of steam power to replace human and animal muscle. The second was the development of communications and travel, with the telegraph and rail networks. The third industrial revolution was the way that communications technology enabled companies to shift production and distribution around the world, and brought about globalisation.

The fourth industrial revolution is the rise of the machines: the WEF estimates that 5 million jobs could be lost to automation by 2020, and that ultimately up to 70% of jobs could be threatened.

Each industrial revolution has brought a massive productivity boost, meaning the amount of value created by each worker has expanded exponentially because of the benefit of technology. The process has been disruptive, with tens of thousands of jobs lost – but generally, other jobs have been created to replace them, and on balance, standards of living have risen.

We still don’t know what the effects of the fourth industrial revolution will be, but early indications are that it will be more disruptive than the others, and the world may never have anything approaching full employment. Commentators like Paul Mason argue that the latest industrial revolution will lead to the collapse of capitalism: because digital technology can be copied for free, there are less and less places to make profit, and more opportunities for people to collaborate.

Whatever happens, unions will need to adapt their negotiating strategies and demands – we can’t win 21st century battles with 20th century tactics. Industry 4.0 creates a fundamental social shift, and  global unions such as UNI argue that there needs to be a just transition to a world with less work, otherwise we will face a future of much greater inequality. We’re also seeing arguments for reduced hours and a Basic Income or Citizens’ Wage so that everyone can benefit from the productivity gains.

Here are some of the ways technology is already disrupting the world of work and providing new organising challenges to unions:

The Gig Economy – technologically facilitated precarity

A major feature of the past few years has been the explosion of the so-called “gig” economy, which sees workers not as employees, but as networked, self-employed service providers using smart phone apps. This trend is being lead by a handful of tech companies, and fiercely contested by unions, some political leaders and representatives of established businesses. Opponents of the gig economy argue that this is essentially a parasitic model, as the tech companies are getting very rich, while investing almost nothing in infrastructure, employing very few people, and paying nothing in tax, because they can base themselves in any jurisdiction. The tech companies argue they are cutting through needless red tape and providing a cheap and user-friendly experience for customers.

The most well known example is Uber, the “ride-sharing” smart phone app, that turns everyone with a car into a part time taxi driver. The company claims that it allows people to use their excess capacity – a little spare time and a car they are trying to pay off – to earn some extra money. The reality is that many Uber drivers work full time doing exactly the same work as taxi drivers, but without the legal rights and regulatory framework the taxi industry is faced with.

This is potentially dangerous for both drivers and passengers, and the company relies on a rating and review system: for instance, you can choose to only ride with drivers who have been rated five stars by customers. But this creates additional pressure to not just drive a car, but to charm your passengers.

There have been court cases against Uber in a number of jurisdictions in the US and Europe, and in some cases, courts have judged that Uber drivers are employees, entitled to legal protections. Transport unions such as the Teamsters in the US organise Uber drivers.

Despite these setbacks, the tendency is for technology to disrupt regulations around work, undoing a century of organising and legal work, and leaving workers vulnerable and precarious.

In addition to Uber, there is a proliferation of app-based temping systems, including Deliveroo (food deliveries by bike), Task Rabbit (odd jobs, such as assembling IKEA furniture), and Mechanical Turk (small online tasks).

Telecommuting and the erosion of private time

Another aspect has been the rise of telecommuting, or “working from home”. While many workers welcome this, because it cuts down on commuting and allows them to establish a work schedule that is more conducive to their lives, it can also be isolating, and lead to the company outsourcing the cost of office space, light and heating (and sometimes IT) to their employees. It is also more difficult for unions to organise remote workers, because there is no water cooler chat about terms and conditions. Flexibility can be very beneficial to workers, but for the most part it has tended to benefit employers.

More insidious is the erosion of private time brought on by smart phones. It is becoming increasingly expected for workers to answer emails while commuting or even relaxing in the evening, or to log on to a work system on a Sunday night to prepare for Monday morning. Of course, none of this extra time is paid for.

Surveillance at work

The rise of employee monitoring and surveillance at work is another major development. This includes both overt and covert surveillance. Overt surveillance is used openly to micro-manage the production process, and to identify areas where “improvements” can be made to increase productivity and profit. Perhaps the most well-developed example is at Amazon fulfilment centres, where workers carry monitors that track their every movement, direct them to items in the warehouse, and give them a set time to find an pack an item.

These workers are being managed by software algorithms designed to determine the most efficient work process, leaving no room for the idiosyncrasies of human work. Amazon workers report that it is virtually impossible to maintain the required rate of work for more than a few months, and burnout is common, as is serious injury: it has become increasingly common for ambulances to be called to fulfilment centres for workers who have collapsed from exhaustion.

Because technological surveillance works hand in hand with casualisation, workers in jobs like this are generally employed through labour brokers and are easy to replace when they burn out and stop performing.

While fulfilment centres are increasingly well known examples of the work process being monitored and managed by technology, this is also very common in call centres and other office environments: recently, Daily Telegraph journalists returned to work to find their employer had secretly installed a monitoring system to check how many hours they were at their desks.

Covert surveillance is carried out secretly, and it includes the routine and common practice of reading not just employees’ emails, but any social media message that passes through their IT system. Some employers also use key logging software (it sends a record of everything typed on a keyboard), or remotely activated webcams to check up on employees. This is particularly disturbing when used on people working from home, as it grants employers access to a private realm.

We face a dramatically different employment environment. Unions need to adapt or die.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

Read All Articles

Related Articles