Twitter is preparing for mass layoffs. Uber faces labor law disputes in multiple countries. And millions of conventional jobs are projected to be erased by technology within years. Should we celebrate or fear the technology-driven “future of work”?
A collection of analyses of technological transformations in global labor, published by the Just Jobs Network, gives some clues about how we can navigate future labor markets that will come with no borders, and endless risks.
The report acknowledges that technology leads to disruption and displacement, but transformation doesn’t have to be brutal. If mediated by fair labor policies that balance “efficiency with equity,” tomorrow’s workers will benefit from technological innovation.
Although many core “middle-skill” sectors like accounting or health services might inevitably be “hollowed out by growing levels of automation,” technological innovations in the Global North and South are providing communities higher levels of connectivity, unprecedented access to state infrastructure, and deeper engagement with both peers and with governing institutions.
We reflexively assume, for example, that traditional manufacturing work will be rendered extinct by robots. But assembly-line factories can retool, as they’ve historically done with every structural shift in technology. Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinen’s study focuses on the potential of “human oriented design,” based on a more humane and productive workspace that actually stimulates workers, enabling active learning on site, rather than just rote repetitive tasks. This is embodied in a “human-oriented approach to work design…characterized by a high degree of operational freedom.” So manufacturing might shrink, but could also evolve toward a more democratic way of working.
Outside the workplace, social media yields possibilities for restructuring labor movements, to ensure that the frenetic on-demand workplace is checked by nimble on-demand labor activism. Kevin Lin of the International Labor Rights Forum points out that migrant-worker centers in China have over the past decade capitalized on microblogging as a platform for communicating with and organizing workers outside state-controlled union institutions—helping a worker center, for example, spread thousands of dispatches, “reports on collective labor disputes, news and state policy, and other public statements.”
In a recent wave of protests by Walmart store workers across China, Lin observes: “workers themselves used social media to discuss the contentious issue of scheduling, raise awareness about its implications and share solutions both within and across stores in different locations. Because social media is very widespread and not technically difficult, workers of varying age, education and industry are able to use social media” to exchange organizing knowledge. Social media networks have also served as platforms for real-time “legal and bargaining trainings for anywhere between dozens and hundreds of participants.”