Making the fourth industrial revolution work for workers

The world of work is already well on its way to a new revolution. Workers change jobs, employers and careers far more frequently than ever before. There are new opportunities in industries that did not even exist ten years ago – plus technology continues to disrupt how existing jobs and sectors work. We welcome the opportunities that the digital economy – and digital in all our everyday lives – brings for new jobs, growth and investment.

But there are also new challenges posed by the digital industrial revolution. Zero hours contracts, the rapid rise of self-employment, and piecework allocated through technology are reinventing casualisation, especially among the young. Some may welcome new flexibilities, but too many working in these roles miss out on basic protections.

In some ways, nothing has changed. Most people still want a job that offers security, enough money for a decent standard of living and time off to spend with their loved ones. That’s where unions come in. Our job is to help workers meet these modest aspirations for a good life, no matter what their role. We think this comes through building the high-productivity, high-wage economy we all want – rather than settling for an atomised, low-skill labour market, increasingly polarised as those without higher level skills see their opportunities for security, decent pay and progression contract.

So where next for unions? In a world where more people use WhatsApp than live in the US, and where more people own a mobile device than a toothbrush, unions’ ability to stay relevant to working life as it changes fast is pivotal if we are to protect workers through the next industrial revolution.

Organising in new sectors can be difficult – but some unions have shown the way, negotiating industry-wide collective agreements on wages and conditions that protect those workers most vulnerable to downwards pressure. The core principle of trade unionism remains the same: workers, acting together, can balance out the power of their employer and force improved conditions – even if they organise together digitally rather than in the car park, and the employer in question runs an app or a call centre rather than a factory. Of course, it is in unionised workplaces where employees find their voices are better heard – we know that high-involvement working practices mean innovation can blossom.

Of course, the offer of trade unionism has had to change too. Over the last decade, unions have moved to the forefront of helping employees keep up with the skills they need to succeed in the modern world. All over the United Kingdom, unions are working with employers to boost workplace learning and deliver training to workers who would otherwise miss out. Unionlearn research has found that workers who took part in union-led training can expect to earn, collectively, an extra £580m throughout their working lives while the economy gained £336m in extra productivity. Unsurprisingly, those who received workplace training benefitted – with three-quarters saying that union-led learning or training had given them new skills to use in their current job, while nearly two-thirds felt they gained new skills they could use to get a new job or change to a different type of work.

Modern labour markets need modern unions so that workers and wider society reap the benefit of technological gains without jeopardising hard-won security for the many.

So it is unfortunate to say the least that this government is determined undermine the role of trade unions with their pernicious trade union bill. The right to decide together to stop work, as a last resort when an employer will not compromise and will not negotiate, is the ultimate source of strength when workers are faced with injustice. It is still used rarely in the UK – but further restrictions on this right can only tip the balance of power even further against working people.

It’s a shame that just as the means appear for unions to engage more closely with their members than ever before, the government continues to defend the ban on unions using digital to run our elections and strike ballots. Looking back at 2016, our grandchildren will surely laugh at the notion that workers were not allowed to participate in shaping their working life through their smartphones and  tablets. But nevertheless I am confident that, in fifty years, unions will still be there arguing for everyone’s right to enjoy a decent standard of living, whatever the jobs market of the future.

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Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. She tweets @FrancesOGrady.

This piece forms part of today’s guest-edit of the Progress site by Stephen Kinnock MP, covering the discussions at Davos on the economy, business and the World Economic Forum’s central theme this year of ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Follow the guest-edit today here

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