Transformation or destruction: the uncertain future of work in the fourth industrial revolution

According to the Australian economist Steve Keen, the only jobs that will remain are high level design and maintenance jobs, which will require extraordinary intelligence. Everyone else will be out of work. Photo from December 2017, at the Arcelor Mittal factory in the Polish city of Dąbrowa Górnicza. (European Commission – Audiovisual Services/Bartosz Siedlik)

Digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence are changing the way we produce, work and interact. In the fourth industrial revolution the principal player is technology, and data the raw material of so-called “platform capitalism”. The ever more widespread practice of working online brings with it flexibility and independence, but also uncertainty, precariousness and a lack of labour rights.

The future of work is an open question, as shown by the global debate led by the ILO, whose conclusions will be presented in 2019.

“We are analysing the trends arsing from the technology, while also looking at demographic developments, migratory movements and climate change which are forcing us to change the way we produce and consume,” Joaquín Nieto, director of the ILO Office in Spain, tells Equal Times. “Previous industrial revolutions did not put an end to employment: they transformed it. Today there are 3,100 million workers in the world, more than ever, but not all work is decent” he adds.

To begin with, 7 million office jobs worldwide will disappear by 2020, and countries like Brazil and China – two of the world’s biggest economies (who account for 65 per cent of the work force) will be the most affected warned the World Economic Forum at its meeting in Davos in 2016.

On the other hand, 2 million jobs related to mathematics, engineering and computer technology will be created. Jobs associated with manufacturing and production will reach rock bottom, although there is hope for recovery in these thanks to improved skills, relocation and higher productivity, it says in its final report. Ryan Avent, editor of The Economist and author of The Wealth of Humans, disagrees.

“We have a vast number of workers, which is creating huge problems which we cannot resolve the way we did in the first industrial revolution, by taking them to more productive areas or training them, because 90 per cent of the population of the developed countries have secondary education and nearly 50 per cent have a post-graduate degree” he explains.

Automation and the lack of work

Steve Keen, professor of Economics at Western Sydney University in Australia, takes a similar view. “In previous industrial revolutions, training was acquired as an apprentice in a specific industry. Today, technology is leading to automation. The only jobs that will stay are high level design and maintenance which will require extraordinary intelligence. Everyone else will be out of work” he explains to Equal Times.

“The number of workers needed to create future technologies – like searching for minerals in asteroids – is insignificant: humans are barely necessary” he adds.

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Like Avent, Keen is in favour of establishing a universal basic income. “So that everyone has an income they can live on” he says. “If we used technology just to live, we could do it extraordinarily well, but to do that we would have to democratise the economy and current reforms are going in exactly the opposite direction. Technologically it is possible, but not politically” says the professor.

The author of Debunking Economics believes the fourth industrial revolution is taking place against a background of precarious jobs and low pay – created by austerity policies.

“Economists believe that markets will work better without trade unions or state monopolies, but they are just weakening workers’ negotiating power and their capacity to organise, which partly explains why salaries are falling: they are destroying the structures that help workers make pay rises a priority” he tells Equal Times.

“If we carry on down this path – that of austerity – we will turn into a deadly society” he warns.

Digital workers – precarious employment and no unions

Added to this is the uncertainty created by the “disruptive” nature of this revolution, notes Nieto from the ILO. “It has its own characteristics, such as digitalisation, and it is happening in an economically globalised world, which is why the speed of change is so much higher than before”.

This global nature is leading millions of people in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines to register on web sites that pay them to design, enter or transcribe data, according to a report by the Oxford Internet Institute.

Attending the global union UNI’s African conference in Dakar in March 2017, one of the authors of this study, Mark Graham, concluded that improving the working conditions of this new labour force would depend on what their union organisation was like.

“A specific role for a union of digital workers could be to create a class consciousness between the different types of employees – full time, part time, temporary – highlighting precariousness.”

Another key point, in Graham’s view, is the democratic control of online work platforms. “Their geographic diversity has made them very difficult to regulate. One solution could be that the place of employment would be established in the country where the worker is actually providing the service.

“Why should an employer based in Germany or the United States be able to avoid complying with the labour laws and minimum standards (of the country where the professional is working) simply because they use a digital platform to connect with their employee?” he says.

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Freelancers, iPros, mechanical turks and crowdworkers

The EU is not exempt from this worldwide increase in freelancers, mechanical turks (those who perform small tasks impossible for machines such as describing or selecting on the basis of aesthetic or emotional criteria) and crowdworkers (workers with no connection between each other who perform the tasks given to them).

The independent professionals or iPros, nine million Europeans who “work for clients” instead of “having a job”, according to the report Future Working by the European Forum of Independent Professionals, are the new professional category of the gig economy (also known as the informal market economy or the temporary work economy, amongst other things).

For experts like the president of France’s Employment Guidance Council, Marie-Claire Carrère-Gée, and the director of Employment Policy Analysis from Germany’s IZA, Werner Eichhorst, managing this “new economy” will mean “changes in the content of future labour reforms, social security systems and job categories”.

Meanwhile, trade unions such as the Spanish UGT warn that this could give rise to a new underground economy and a “new precarious digital employment” with low pay and little or no social protection.

In Italy, over 6 million workers are “available” via an app, according to a study by FEPS oncrowdworking. The text also notes that the people seeking to make their living this way “must be prepared to offer as many services as possible and this can, therefore, be a sign of desperation to find work”, for those who do between four and eight different types of work.

In the United Kingdom alone, between 2008 and 2015, the number of freelancers has risen by 36 per cent, to nearly two million workers. Behind the narrative of flexibility, freedom and work/life balance lies the fact that 80 per cent of them are poor, according to the blog Tax Research UK. Astudy
by the British think tank Social Market Foundation states that the monthly incomes of 55 per cent of freelancers in the United Kingdom are less than two thirds of the average monthly salary.

This worldwide trend could be summarised in requests like that of the Spanish Digital Economy Association, Adigital, which calls for the “the adaptation of the regulatory framework to labour market to digital platforms” and recognises “the existence of a commercial relationship with the self-employed” but “with minimum forms of social protection, social insurance and a minimum wage”. The final aim is to “ease the transition from the current ‘employment economy’ to an ‘economy of self-employed workers’.”

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