Digital economy to bring rise to 21st-century unions

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In 2020, a new breed of trade unions will rise to fight for the rights of workers in organisations, as automation increasingly disrupts modern workplaces across the globe.

This is according to global innovation foundation Nesta, which has published its annual predictions for the year ahead. It forecasts that technology and automation, combined with the growth of a service economy and precarious work, are transforming the way that society is structured.

This will inevitably lead to disruption and job losses, meaning that trade unions have an important role to play in shaping how far workers who may lose their jobs are supported to reskill and retrain.

While technology in the workplace is already directly affecting people in some forms of low-paid work, the report notes that people in traditionally safe white-collar jobs, such as accountancy, will also soon start to see significant changes to their working lives.

“As technology increasingly changes the world of work, there are signs of a number of converging trends that will make unions more relevant, powerful and visible,” explains Jack Orlik, researcher at Nesta.

“In 2020, a new breed of trade unions will start to turn the tide to re-establish a strong voice for workers: ones that are on the forefront of championing the role of technology and automation in modern workplaces.

“The new 21st-century trade union can help to shape the way in which technology and automation are applied in our workplaces, championing choices that empower workers, increase the demand for human capabilities and drive productivity.”

While the impact of technology can bring both a negative and positive change, this evolution of trade unions will speed up, as automation and the changing world of work rises up the digitalisation of work agenda across the world, notes Nesta.

“Trade union membership has been falling for decades but in the last couple of years we’ve seen a renewal of worker activism with Google and Amazon workers striking and gig workers unionising. Much of this new activism has been in response to new technology and in 2020 this will arise to shape the role of technology in the workplace,” according to the report.

Turning tides

According to Accenture’s "Creating South Africa's Future Workplace”, over a third of current jobs in SA are at risk from technologies like robots, artificial intelligence , machine learning and automation, with both white and blue-collar workers' positions in the firing line.

In September, finance union, the South African Society of Bank Officials, in collaboration with trade union Cosatu, vowed to shut down all digital banking platforms after expressing concerns about the loss of jobs in the local banking sector, as well as the future of the industry in light of digitisation.

The one-day industrial action, which was later discontinued, was a way of sending a message to the banks to halt retrenchments that have become commonplace in the sector.

Standard Bank, one of SA's big four banks, is in the process of cutting down jobs and branches, as it ramps up its digitising efforts.

Nedbank is moving to redeploy employees impacted by digitisation, while Cell C has recently invested millions in a partnership with Explore Data Science Academy that seeks to upskill some of its employees in data science.

In June, MultiChoice SA entered into a consultation process with 2 194 of its employees within customer care (call centre) and the walk-in centres as part of the strategic realignment of its customer service delivery model, influenced by technology.

Some unions are expected to be in support of technology, playing an intricate role in how it will be implemented, explains Nesta.

“Unions ready to take on the 21st century are already appearing. Many in Europe are embracing technology that can be shaped for the benefit of workers. In Scandinavia, unions have been a driving force in shaping a mutually supportive relationship between employers, workers and technology.

“From TCO union in Sweden that anticipates changes to the labour market resulting from digitalisation, to Denmark’s 3F Union, which reached an agreement with Hilfr (a digital platform for domestic cleaners) so that gig workers using the site could secure benefits such as holidays and sick pay,” adds Orlik.

As the US gears up for the 2020 presidential election, Democratic candidates have set out plans to give gig workers the right to unionise.

Almost half of UK workers experienced changes to their working practices as a result of technology between 2012 and 2017. And after a century of low membership numbers, the Trades Union Congress reported this year that union membership in the UK increased by 100 000 between 2017 and 2018.

Last month, Dion Chang, trends analyst and founder of Flux Trends told ITWeb that the evolution of the workforce in the digital age has meant companies are looking for professionals who have specialised hybrid, cross-industry skills, and SA must wake up to this reality.

“A lot more organisations are coming to the realisation that they need to change their approach to innovation. They need to bring in multi-skilled, talented people to the organisation, not only for the purpose of innovation, but also for workload efficiency. It’s not necessarily the new job positions that are cropping up, but it’s the need identified that is forcing them to create these new positions.”

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