Technology threatens trade unions' survival

2018-05-06 06:01
Cosatu members march in Cape Town on Workers’ Day PHOTO: Gallo Images

Cosatu members march in Cape Town on Workers’ Day PHOTO: Gallo Images

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The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has become a buzz word in many forums discussing global economic trends. The revolution is presented as the next inevitable event that will sweep the world.

As such, everyone everywhere is supposed to embrace it without question. But embedded in the new revolution is sophisticated re-organisation of workplaces. At the centre of the revolution is the extensive use of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology and quantum computing, among others. All these will ultimately minimise the human element in the production process.

How should trade unions respond, given that workers will be the immediate casualty of the revolution. Should unions buy into the rhetoric that revolution is inevitable or that the only option is to reskill its members so that they can remain relevant?

The first industrial revolution used water, coal and rudimentary improvement in technology to mechanise production. The second industrial revolution relied on electric power to drive mass production. Accompanied by improved transport systems, mass-produced goods found markets globally keeping the momentum of mass production going. The third industrial revolution was ushered in by drastic improvements in electronics and information technology which enabled automated production.

The 4IR goes a notch higher in production technology and human relations within production processes. Some have explained the new revolution as a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”.

Although industrialisation, across all the previous revolutions, brought about an increase in volume and variety of manufactured goods and improved livelihoods for some people, it was also characterised by a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. This gap has increased with the progression from the first revolution to the now-unfolding revolution.

What is not contestable is that the new revolution will reduce the number of people employed in workplaces. At the extreme it will eliminate the human element in many production systems. This is a fundamental issue of concern to all developing countries, especially those with growing populations, such as South Africa.

Creating jobs that enable meaningful and dignified living for its people is a key aspiration of South Africa and the African continent.

Economic growth realised in post-apartheid South Africa has not been high enough to reduce unemployment. This has been exacerbated by the phenomenon of jobless economic growth. The 4IR, if embraced unconditionally, will make joblessness worse.

Apart from reducing the number of people working, it will cater only for highly skilled people and those who have had the opportunity to be trained and exposed to specific technologies. It will not be about providing employment to educated and skilled people but rather people who have been chosen to be exposed to particular technologies. These will be patented technologies and will encompass trade secrets. With patents in place, there will be selective exposure to these technologies. The technology owners will have deciding powers on who should be enabled to use the technologies, to what extent and under what circumstance. As a result it will concentrate the powers of deciding who should and should not be part of the productive systems in the hands of technology owners.

The revolution will also change how work will be done. The conventional workplace will fall way. It will enable flexible and decentralised but interconnected workplaces and production systems.

People’s homes will become workstations and the line between home and work will be blurred. Workplace standards will, to some extent, need to be extended to apply to people’s homes.

Given the fact that a home is a shared environment between the person who is working and his/her family, some of the elements of the revolution will end up affecting family dynamics.

Under the new revolution, it will be possible to work on the same project, from different location points and with differing levels of predetermined contribution. As a result, the rewarding system of workers will become complex. It will almost be impossible to negotiate for better employment terms for workers because of the differentiation of tasks and location. The concept of worker’s trade unions will be rendered almost irrelevant as powers will be reconcentrated with the employers and the technology owners.

The new revolution will create a dual society where the few privileged people, especially owners of technology, will benefit from the economic activities, while the majority will be spectators. More concerning for labour, it will concentrate the negotiation powers in the workplace in the hands of the employers and technology owners, while dismantling the workplace powers of unions.

Against this background, trade unions need to recognise that the new revolution is a description of a production system that is biased towards the use of sophisticated technologies in production systems and all aspects of life rather than in humans. This system is being adopted by countries that have made significant advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. It is a rational and logical choice for these high-technology countries, but not for a country like South Africa where job creation is a national priority. Given the effect on jobs, it is critical that all trade unions come up with a common stand on the new revolution, echoing the fact that the revolution is a choice and a choice that unions are not willing to support because of the ramifications to jobs.

- Kaggwa is executive research director of Sam Tambani Research Institute

Read more on:    cosatu  |  technology

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