A New Contract for a New Economy

Posted on May 29, 2017 at 11:43 AM

The Digital Economy
The Digital Economy

Congress Equality Officer David Joyce looks at the likley impact of the Digital Economy on the world of work and how we can ensure a 'just transition'

Daily we are bombarded with propaganda that promotes the 'gig' economy as exciting and empowering. It is also referred to as the 'sharing' economy, implying that it operates in a manner that benefits all participants equally.

That is clearly untrue.

What is often overlooked is the fact that workers in this new economy are expected to renounce their rights to employment contracts, regularised working hours, social security and even job security.

In fact none of these standard protections seem to apply once the goods and services are delivered via an app or a web platform.

But it seems that reality is slowing catching up with key players in the sector, with some major decisions going against both Uber (link) and Deliveroo (link) recently. Last autumn, the London Employment Tribunal upheld a claim by drivers that they were employed as Uber workers.

In addition, the European Union has ruled that the platform “must be classified as a ‘service in the field of transport’ and not a mere intermediary between drivers willing to offer transport services occasionally and passengers in search of such services.”

And on May 11, Deliveroo, the takeaway delivery company that relies on 15,000 ‘self-employed’ couriers, made changes to its contracts for riders following pressure from the UK parliament. The company removed a controversial clause in its ‘supplier agreement’ which stated that couriers could not challenge their self-employed status at an employment tribunal.

This erosion of legal frameworks governing the employment relationship has been at the heart of the developing gig economy. Reversing this erosion of workers’ rights must therefore be a central objective of trade union action around the future of work.

Workers in the digital economy must enjoy the same rights and protections as workers in other parts of the economy. All workers must have the same fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, protection from discrimination, exploitation and hazardous work, a decent income and social protection, no matter where or how they are employed. 

Many of these issues were explored at a recent conference in Dublin, organised by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation, which featured a number of high profile international experts in the area. Copies of the presentations are available here. 


Technology Outpaces the Law

While the number of devices connected to the internet is expected to reach more than 20bn by 2020, some 50% of the world’s population still has no access to the what we call the ‘worldwide web’.

So unless there is massive and rapid investment in connecting those 50%, we are likely to see a huge increase in inequality between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, with dramatic economic and social consequences.

Advances in robotics, nano and bio-technology, machine learning and 3D printing can deliver enormous benefits to society. 

At the same time, these advances will have profound consequences for existing jobs and people at work today. Some estimate that up to 60% of existing work could be partially automated over time, with up to 10% of jobs lost completely. 

While virtually all studies show that lower-skilled or ‘routine intensive’ jobs are most at risk, there will also be an impact on higher skilled work.

 A publication from the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) “Digitalisation and the Digital Economy” outlines some key principles to help ensure a ‘digital just transition’. These include:

  • Early assessment of social and employment impacts
  • Dialogue and democratic consultation with social partners and stakeholders
  • Active labour market policies and regulation, including training and skills development
  • Social protection, including securing of pensions
  • Community renewal and economic diversification plans
  • Sound investments leading to high quality, decent jobs.

Achieving this just transition will be challenging given that many governments show no real inclination to properly regulate the digital economy or to proactively protect workers’ rights.  But a failure to do so will see a dystopian corporate free-for-all world of greater inequality, insecurity and exploitation.

For some, this grim future is already a reality as disturbing reports from Tesla’s so-called ‘factory of the future’ appears to reveal

Governments and business need to recognise the necessity for investment in those occupations, sectors and communities most affected in order to maximise the benefits of the digital economy for all

The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals provides an agenda for development with decent work at its heart, with the goals providing an important universal framework for decisions about the future of work.

Ultimately, we require a new contract for workers in the global economy, as outlined by the ITUC. The contract would ultilise social dialogue to ensure that all future work is decent work that universal rights are respected and the following ambitions are realised:

  • More jobs are created than destroyed;
  • Prosperity is shared through collective bargaining and ‘minimum living wages’
  • Guarantees of freedom of association to ensure union rights
  • An end to the oppression, corruption and profiteering from denial of core labour standards
  • Gender equality and inclusion of women, young people, migrants and refugees in the labour market
  • Government and corporate accountability in supply chains via mandated 'due diligence' and application of the rule of law
  • Family-friendly practices and workplaces
  • The elimination of forced and child labour
  • The creation of Safe Work as standard. 

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