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African unions meet in Namibia to plan for Industry 4.0 and sustainability

25 October, 2018With robots on the factory floors, in automotive manufacturing plants, mining, and energy sectors, advanced technology is transforming workplaces. This means future jobs will be different, but what does this mean for trade unions? 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 is being ushered in by rapid automation caused by smart sensors, machine learning, data management, artificial intelligence and cloud solutions. Initially restricted to a few sectors such as automotive, aerospace, shipping, mechanical engineering and industrial manufacturing, robots will soon be in all sectors, including textile and garments.

IndustriALL Global Union affiliates from 12 countries in Sub Saharan Africa, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, met in Windhoek, Namibia 18 – 19 October to discuss how unions can build strategies to engage on Industry 4.0 including the possibility of setting up a research network. Further, the meeting agreed that unions should be proactive in public policymaking on sustainable industrialization by looking at the economic, environmental and social dimensions.

In a region with high unemployment especially of young people, participants at the meeting agreed that unions must continue to fight for employment creation, job security, life-long learning for workers to get new transportable skills, living wages and better working conditions including for women. The importance of the local and global contexts featured in the discussions, particularly in relation to the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Social Development Goals to end poverty, create decent work and green jobs. International solidarity and Global Framework Agreements were cited as important in protecting workers rights.

The meeting discussed the need for Just Transition plans to protect workers’ rights and welfare because Industry 4.0 is linked to climate change. These plans should include creative labour adjustment programmes, social protection, and sustainable industrial policies to deliver job security. Social justice for affected communities should also be included. Further, it was stated that technological advancement, which is uneven on the continent, is hampered by high data costs, limited internet connectivity and expensive electricity.

According to Jens Dyring from the ILO, the Future of Work Initiative recognizes that the world of work is changing and for unions to be ready.

However, despite fears of job losses, there were benefits to workers’ health and safety when robots took over back-breaking work and workers earned more from high skilled jobs.

Brian Kohler, IndustriALL director of health, safety and sustainability, said:

"When technology makes jobs better and takes away the drudgery; workers can benefit. Unions should fight for a Just Transition because it is a bridge to the new, sustainable world of work. Building that bridge means that workers must play a role in making sustainable industrial policies.”