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Future of Work

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The world of work is going through a perfect storm of change. Diverse forces are converging to create a vortex that is driving the biggest change in the way we work for over a century.

The way we work, the workplaces we are familiar with, the environments our unions were born in, and the situations they developed strategies for, are all fundamentally changing. Will these changes sweep us away, or renew us?

That is up to us.

Here are some of the forces driving change in the way we work:

  • Climate change and the need to shift to a carbon-neutral economy
  • Industry 4.0, the rise of the robots and the development of digital production processes
  • The development of the gig economy, and other new forms of technologically-facilitated precarious work
  • A globalized, market-lead approach to economic development, leading to long and complicated supply chains.

In 2020, another driver was added: the Covid-19 pandemic, which had the effect of rapidly speeding up existing trends, and adding some new ones: a massive explosion in teleworking, the use of technology to replace travel and physical meetings, and furlough schemes to pay workers who are unable to work due to the pandemic.

Climate change means we will have to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Environmental degradation means we need to cut down on plastic and on polluting chemicals. The transition to a carbon-neutral economy is already having dramatic impacts on the world of work. The sectors most impacted are mining and energy. Demand for coal is falling while demand for the minerals needed in batteries increases. The energy sector needs to shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

The auto sector is undergoing a major transformation as it engages with changes to mobility, and mechanical engineering is wrestling with green technology – developing mechanical process that improve energy efficiency, for instance.

These changes intersect with Industry 4.0 - the addition of digital processes and new technology to production. At its most basic, Industry 4.0 represents the replacement of human labour with robots, machines or digital processes. This includes everything from automated checkouts in supermarkets to sophisticated robots that build cars. Industry 4.0 also means the development of just-in-time, bespoke manufacture to replace mass production. Customers will be able to order everything from cars to furniture by placing orders online with customized detail.

Most industry specialists expect a future where people and robots will work alongside each other, with a shift from blue- to white-collar work. This has important implications for gender balance – white-collar work is less male-dominated – and will also contribute to the rise of teleworking: the cars of tomorrow might be built by mothers working from home.

Market-lead globalization has led to uneven development, with difficult, dangerous and unpleasant work outsourced to developing companies with poorer labour laws.

A union response: at the table or on the menu?

Whether the changes to the world of work are good or bad is up to us. Millions of jobs are threatened, but millions more could be created. Dangerous and repetitive tasks could be done by machines, with humans doing more interesting and creative work, and improving their work-life balance with teleworking agreements.

We are faced with a unique opportunity to restructure the world of work to make it more suitable for workers, more socially useful, and better for the planet. Unions need to consistently advocate for our vision of the future in every forum where it is discussed.

This includes Just Transition. Government furlough schemes and intervention during the pandemic set an important precedent. We need to demand the same level of intervention to make sure the move to a carbon neutral economy does not come at the expense of workers and communities.

We also need to fight for good teleworking agreements, and for the legal rights of platform-based workers and other parts of the digital precariat.

We need to change the global development model so that it is less exploitative. This includes promoting supply chain legislation and binding global agreements, and promoting sustainable industrial development so that countries in the global south can benefit from the products they produce.

And we need to develop and promote positive visions of the future, such as our Green Tech Manifesto.

Related publications

The future of work and IndustriALL Global Union
A just transition for workers