Industry 4.0 – what does it mean for workers?
How will technological developments impact the core nature of our work? It is an age-old question stretching back to the first industrial revolution when humans abandoned hand tools and employed steam and water to power advanced new machines. As we enter what is widely accepted as mankind’s fourth industrial revolution, known as Industry 4.0, the world of work is being transformed once more, and this time the change is said to be both faster and more wide-reaching than anything we have experienced previously.
Since around 1975 the processing power of computers has more or less stuck to Moore’s Law - a prediction that processors will double in power every two years. A modern smartphone is around 120 million times faster than the computer onboard Apollo 11 which first guided man to the surface of the moon.
Since the moon landing, we’ve witnessed the invention of the personal computer, GPS, the CD, DVD, flash memory, the World Wide Web, digital cameras, mobile phones, smartphones, email, broadband, the search engine, Wi-Fi, social networks and much more. Each of these have, in their own way, changed how governments, businesses and people operate.
At an ETUI-ETUC meeting in Brussels this week, trade unions are creating strategies to ensure that Industry 4.0 avoids some of the grim working conditions that have been commonplace in previous moments of industrial upheaval. This is in itself a monumental challenge given the circumstances in which 4.0 arrives on our planet – a time when income inequality is at an historic high and sending rifts of division through communities, nations and the wider world. The very rich are reaping the benefits – financial at least – of the large share of technological change, with the 62 wealthiest people now holding the same accumulated wealth as one half of the human race. GDP is slowing across the world because productivity is declining and as a result unemployment is high.
“There is something terribly dysfunctional about the way we are structuring our economies,” says American economist Jeremy Rifkin before predicting twenty more years of low productivity and low growth.
Climate change has put the planet at risk of its sixth extinction event – “the biggest story that’s ever happened on our watch,” Rifkin says. “The fresh water is melting so quickly it’s affecting the ocean currents and we can expect storms we have never seen – wiping out entire parts of earth. We could lose over half the species on the earth in the next seven decades.”
It is within this context that new networks and systems are being put in place that are massively shifting the nature of our lives and work. Systems like the Internet of Things - the connectivity by which intelligent devices can sense and connect to one other, such as a smartphone and the central heating in your home. Who maintains control of these systems will have incredibly important ramifications in terms of power, industrial relations, wealth distribution, and personal privacy.
“The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.” World Economic Forum
This time around
So why is Industry 4.0 so different? Unlike the first revolution which saw us shift from manual to machine, the second to electricity and mass production or the third from analogue and mechanical to digital electronics, the fourth is a fusion of different technologies resulting in what are being labeled “cyber-physical” systems. It is not confined by geography nor the physical world. It also distinguishes itself in its rate of growth which, according to the World Economic Forum, is evolving at an “exponential rather than linear pace.” It is expanding outwards in all directions like the universe - disrupting every person, company or industry in its path.
The lines between third and fourth revolutions are blurred to such a degree that some experts refuse to make a distinction between the two. ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said that if the recent BREXIT vote taught us anything it is that anyone trying to predict the future was unlikely to get it right. What is clear is that workers still have many consequences to feel from the digital revolution and a massive and global unemployment crisis could be one of the most worrying. A recent Oxford University study predicted that up to 47% of all U.S. jobs could be automated within the next twenty years.
Those that hold on to their jobs can expect the nature of their work to change dramatically as more and more individual tasks are able to be handed to machines. In Germany, around 40% of all jobs can expect their top required skill to change over the next five years.
Rise of the platform economy
So what will the work of the future look like? With technology replacing an increasing number of medium skilled jobs, so more and more people are likely to be pushed into low-paid insecure work. Many experts believe the platform or “sharing” economy, currently in its infancy, will be the system on which we base our future employment models.
“Capitalism has given birth to the platform economy,” Rifkin says. “Capitalism is not going to be the centre of life in thirty years from now. It’s going to be sharing centre stage with a grown up sharing economy.”
Platform employers agree. “Everything that can become a platform will become a platform,” says ZipCar founder Robin Chase.
Typical platform work at present involves temporary, tasked-based jobs such as driving cars for Uber or performing “microwork” through crowdsourcing websites such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Microwork involves taking a project, breaking it down into tiny parts, and distributing each individual part to a number of people to complete over the internet.
The average hourly wage for a Mechanical Turk worker in America is $2. Kristy Milland founded TurkerNation.com with the aim of bringing microworkers together to bargain for fairer conditions.
“Computer programming? Writing? Journalism? Pay a Turker,” Milland said. “Turkers have even outperformed doctors in diagnosing patients with difficult-to-spot diseases.” There is no job that cannot be outsourced, she says. “It’s cheap, fast and makes business sense. But is it ethical?”
Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute says he found significant levels of income inequality on crowd work platforms such as Mechanical Turk with 80% of workers on one such site receiving only 10% of the income. “Workers don’t know who they are working for which makes it hard to upgrade their skills,” Graham says. “These opaque production networks are exploited by the clients and their lack of presence makes it difficult to organise for worker rights.” Minimum wage does not apply.
Furthermore, ownership and control of platform markets rest in only a few hands with work usually performed outside of government control with no tax obligations to the platform or its clients. The platform economy as a whole raises a number of questions with regards to workers’ rights, taxation, pension, health and security.
Daring to dream
But what about the benefits? What can we expect Industry 4.0 and its related developments to bring that is good for workers and how do we as trade unions shape it towards improved working conditions?
An increase in connectivity in the global south and the evolution of the platform model means workers in the developing world are able to compete for work with those in richer countries, Graham says. Work is no longer dependent on physical proximity and instead the supply is spread across the world. However, so far, the demand remains concentrated in the west. “For this reason workers all over the world are aligning their working hours to Europe and America,” he adds.
Of course, technology is having a very positive impact in numerous ways. It provides workers with opportunities to manage their time more effectively, to choose where they wish to work and to achieve a better work-life balance. The societal benefits are wide-ranging including advances in health care which means we are living and working longer than ever before.
Some jobs will be safe from replacement by robots – in particular personal service jobs such as gym instructors, care workers, nurses or hairdressers. As technology continues to move ahead of humans we can expect workers to move towards careers that require creative and social skills and physical dexterity beyond the capacity of robots. And we can expect some new jobs to be created as a result of technologies. The numbers are not expected to rival those set to be lost, however. A study by Forester research suggests that the equivalent of 9% of today’s jobs could be created.
The platform economy is a notoriously difficult environment in which to organise workers into unions due to the individualization of the workforce. Platform work is designed to remind workers that they are competing with each other for labour, with the majority of work carried out outside of any formal employment relationship. Workers can hold several jobs at the same time and permanent workplaces are expected to gradually become a thing of the past. Conditions are perfect for anti-union businesses to thrive.
Unions at the ETUI conference are being encouraged instead to regard the increased levels of connectivity as a positive opportunity to redefine the way in which unions work. Oxford University’s Mark Graham believes a transnational digital union could highlight the precariousness of platform work and underline the fact that workers are shouldering the risk of entrepreneurship but receiving little of the reward.
Many unions are currently focused on preparing workers for new forms of work by bringing about a skills revolution focused on new forms of education, continuous reskilling and lifelong learning, and believe this must be implemented hand in hand by governments, businesses and trade unions.
Perhaps the most interesting suggestion has come from TurkerNation’s Kristy Milland. “Instead of trying to stop the likes of Amazon, why not compete with them?” she asked.
Could union-operated work platforms offering a fair deal and union membership thrown-in be one way to organse the workforce of the future? Would consumers be willing to pay slightly more for an ethical service and what would this mean for traditional industries that platforms are set to replace? Many questions remain but what is clear is that unions must be ready to adapt and start finding answers.
Crowd worker Kristy Milland has made up her mind. “Unions should start a platform of their own," she says. "We’d come and work for it.”