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Unions can shape the future of work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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1 November, 2019Pro-active trade unions can shape and influence the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the digital economy, said a panel of unionists from Germany and South Africa at a Global Labour University  (GLU) conference in Johannesburg on 31 October.

The topic was: the future of work and the role of trade unions, social dialogue, industrial relations and co-determination.

Commending the GLU programme, Thulas Nxesi, the South African minister of employment and labour, who was at the conference, stressed:

“Skilling and reskilling of workers is important to match current trends in the world of work. Strong unions and social compacts on 4IR are critical.”

The panel said trade unions can be involved in lifelong learning and ensure that workers’ rights and participation is guaranteed. The co-determination approach of the German trade unions should also be protected and the campaign for living wages intensified.

Collective bargaining agreements and social protection should be preserved. Although the national social and economic context is key, trade unions should also develop global strategies and work with the International Labour Organization to respond to the digital economy and demand Just Transition plans as the world moves from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Bastian Schulz, director of the FES Trade Union Competence Centre, said:

“New instability of work characterizes labour relations in the 21st century. Unions face challenges on the digital economy especially the way it transforms jobs, and employment relationships as well as the social divide between workers with stable paying jobs and those with unstable, poorly paid or precarious jobs, or no jobs at all.”

Reiner Hoffman, president of the German federation of trade unions the DGB, said:

“In discussing the 4IR we must not forget that labour is also changing. The fear of technology displacing workers is not new; it was there in the 1970s and 1980s. In Germany we are focusing on opportunities from the 4IR and not only discussing risks. These opportunities arise from new types of work that will result from technological innovation and digitalization.”

He cautioned that trade unions must not sit back and allow big corporations to dominate the 4IR debates.

Zingiswa Losi, the president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions said:

“Unions must ask if the South African economy is ready for the 4IR. What are the consequences and impact on the workers? We should not support jobless economic growth. Currently unemployment is very high at 29.1 per cent and at the expanded rate of 38.5 per cent. Unions must engage to stop workers’ exploitation under the 4IR.”

Ruth Ntlokotse, second deputy president of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union, said:

“Data and artificial intelligence are central to the digital economy. Who owns this data and what are the effects on workers? We are already facing issues with biometrics at the workplaces. Employers are using surveillance systems to infringe on workers privacy. We need studies that will inform us on how to respond to the 4IR.”

Workers from IndustriALL affiliates, the Industrial Commercial Workers Union (Ghana) and the Commercial , Industrial and Allied Workers Union (Malawi) who are former students of the GLU programmes, were part of the 100 participants who attended the conference. The conference was held with support from FES, the University of the Witwatersrand and GLU.