Why workers matter for a successful new production revolution
What are the conditions for all to benefit from the technological progress?
The talk of the town this year has truly been the so-called fourth industrial revolution–and rightly so. Digitalisation causes an increasing interconnectivity of people, production and processes. Combined with the rapid development in artificial intelligence, self-learning machines and robot technology it heralds a new time of revolutionary technological progress.
Let me be clear, new technology is not the enemy of workers. However, the development, diffusion and use of new technology has to be shaped in a way that leads to quality jobs with decent working conditions, backed by a proper level of social protection. Otherwise, short-term progress could inflict long-term damage on the economy and our societies.
We must face the challenges head-on and we must dare to speak openly and honestly about the understandable fear that many have regarding job security and the future of their work and incomes. We need to discuss how we embrace the technological achievements and create new jobs while avoiding a deterioration of working conditions and a further polarisation of our societies.
In my view, the preconditions for a successful future labour market is a strong social dialogue, a fine-meshed social safety net and a top-tiered education system that ensures that each individual has the possibility of acquiring the skills they will need throughout their working life.
The robots are coming
There are various challenges. The technological development is promoting an increasing automation of routine jobs in manufacturing, rendering many tasks redundant. This is not a first for workers. We have seen this before with the introduction of automated tasks in agriculture and parts of industry. However, artificial intelligence and self-learning machines can potentially lead to an unprecedented automation of tasks, which have historically necessitated a human set of hands.
True, digitalisation brings possibilities for innovation and growth, but it also carries the inherent risks of a fractured labour market and a breakdown of stable employment relationships. This so-called fourth industrial revolution will not only affect industrial workers, but the entire labour market in the private and public sectors. It will affect not only lower skilled workers but also doctors, lawyers, and other highly educated professionals.
However, it is undeniable that the first waves of digitalisation and the consequent automation of work affect both unskilled and skilled workers. In Denmark, studies, including one by McKinsey-Denmark, shows that up to 40% of all tasks/working hours could be automated by current technologies and, according to Cevea, a Danish think tank, close to 800,000 jobs in total have a high probability of being automated within the next 20 years. That is almost a third of all jobs in Denmark. You do not have to be a trade unionist to see the challenge ahead. It is real, and there is no hiding from it.
Many fear a future scenario where robots and artificial intelligence will lead to rising unemployment, while the gains of automation are concentrated in ever fewer and fewer hands. This is in line with OECD’s own view that growing inequality hurts economic performance, and new growth must be more balanced and inclusive. The emerging “platform” economy may become an easy way for displaced workers to find a job, but should not be a way of getting rid of obligations as employers and taxpayers, and so pose a serious threat to our social and public systems.
Technology, skills and peace of mind are the way forward
This fourth industrial revolution will probably bring about larger and faster disruptions than we have previously witnessed. The impending question is therefore how to ensure a future labour market that can meet the challenges ahead and reinforce our societies so that we are all prosperous, equal and safe.
First, if new technology is to create new products and quality jobs, we need to ensure that the labour force has the right skills. This is an absolute must and requires massive investments in innovative education and training systems, and on-the-job training. But it also requires workers to take on a responsibility for upgrading their skills, and this needs to be underpinned by a framework that offers both an adequate level of social protection and the willingness of employers to invest in their employees, provide educational leave and contribute to quality apprenticeships for young people.
Second, the disruption to jobs has major consequences for workers, with many fearing that they will be the next ones to lose theirs. A social safety net offers both peace of mind and promotes a more dynamic labour market. A reliable and universal safety net is an absolute prerequisite if workers are to take chances and change track by acquiring new skills.
"On-call workers and crowd workers should have the same rights as others, including social protection, pensions and other benefits".
Lastly, we must ensure that technological advancement is not used to circumvent labour standards and workers’ rights. On-call workers and crowd workers should have the same rights as others, including social protection, pensions and other benefits. In line with the recommendations by the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) on digitalisation and the digital economy, a stronger social dialogue and agreement-based schemes must constitute a central axis of the labour market.
We need to ensure that everyone is ready for the future. No doubt, this is an immense task that requires efforts by governments, employers and workers alike. I believe that together, and only together, we can provide the framework conditions necessary for us all to benefit from the technological progress.
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McKinsey (2016), “A future that works: The impact of automation in Denmark”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lizette Risgaard is President of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). LO represents around 1 million skilled and unskilled workers and workers with short-term further education. LO’s affiliates organise both public and private sector employees. LO is a member of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD and plays an active part in the activities of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Ms. Risgaard has a long carrier in the trade union movement. Before she was elected as President in October 2015, she served as Vice-President of LO from 2007-2015, as President of HK/Service Copenhagen and Vice-President of LO Greather Copenhagen from 2000-2007 and as clerical worker in different trade unions from 1980. Ms. Risgaard is Bachelor of Commerce and Master of Public Administration.
This article was first published in the OECD Yearbook 2017.