The existence of labour unions has always been based on the need for collective bargaining to secure improved wages, enhanced working conditions and better political status for workers. Their successes premised on these terms of reference are well documented dating back from the eighteenth century to date. It can however be argued that the vast changes in the organisation of labour over time have advanced significant challenges on labour unions to remain a force that they were once reckoned with in the previous century.
In recent times, the labour market has leaned more towards casualization of workers and the surge in labour brokers, which in essence disables workers to unionise. In addition, the existence of the unions is further threatened by the shrinking economy which appears to be a global phenomena. The dwindling economies have gradually triggered the adoption of austerity measures by not only governments but companies in both the private and public sectors. In turn, many companies have opted to lay off workers in large numbers, significantly reducing the labour force. Since the strength of a unions lies with the quantity of its members, a reduced labour force has a considerable impact on the bargaining power and lowered political status of labour unions. Furthermore, the implications of a reduced labour force beg the questions on not only the relevance but also the existence of labour unions given the reduced revenue through membership fees.
In the worst-case scenario where the economy continues to shrink or stagnates, its capacity to absorb jobseekers would remain compromised. Consequently, the capacity of unions to expand their membership would also remain curtailed. As if these challenges are not enough for the labour movements, the world is on the brink of a defining era through the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
Expects have indicated that this would be an epoch of disruptive technologies in many spheres of human life including the organisation of labour markets. It is grounded in the introduction of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual Reality (VR). While the rest of us are trying to understand the magnitude of the disruptions that will be ushered by this revolution, what is apparent is that human labour force is bound to be largely substituted by automated machines with the ability to understand, process and adapt to workplace demands.
It cannot be denied that the implications of the fourth industrial revolution on the workforce are huge and frightening. As a result, there appears to be some resistance from some labour movements for governments to immediately embrace the technological advances as they entail a lot of mechanisation. The situation presents contradictions especially for governments where comprising workers whose lives it is meant to advance and who happen to be voters cannot be an option yet technological advancements that bring about disruptions in the labour market cannot be ignored either. Nevertheless, whatever the extent of contradictions, the 4IR cannot be deferred.
Furthermore, any delay in adapting to the shift by any government would be detrimental to the future growth of the economy and human development. As such, for the labour movements, the changes require investment on the reimagined future of the workplace in relation to the workforce. Instead of resisting the inevitable, labour movements need to comprehend and be responsive to the implications of the fourth industrial revolution for their sustained existence and relevance.
Reimagining the future of any workplace also has implications for the education system that should factor in the demands of the 4IR without compromising the agenda on decolonisation of education. This entails incorporation of some of the latest technologies in teaching, learning and training as a way to align the future workforce with the detects of the changing times. In anticipation of the challenges of the 4IR, labour movements should advocate for upskilling of the current workforce not only to be employees but to be innovators and employers as well. In this way, the labour movements would be aligning to the demands of the 4IR and actively participating in the expansion of the economy which in turn would ascertain their continued existence and relevance.
Mpumelelo Ncube is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg.