International Union Rights: Focus on Industry 4.0

● More robots, fewer rights?
● Algorithms, blockchains, data & the future of work
● Silicon Valley to Vietnam: big tech & labour exploitation

In the 1770s, a chess-playing automaton known as the ‘Mechanical Turk’ began touring Europe and North America, winning matches and the awe of spectators. The deception, revealed after decades of speculation, could not have been simpler: there was a man hiding inside the machine. Without any trace of irony, in 2005 Amazon adopted the name Mechanical Turk for its new crowdsourcing platform. On the website, workers (or ‘Turkers’) bid to perform an array of ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’ for as little as one US cent in remuneration. The company’s brazen adoption of a name synonymous with the obscuring of the human at work beneath the facade of a machine says quite a lot about the predicament of labour in a world on the precipice of ever-deeper integration with artificial intelligence, automation and digital capitalism.

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Coinciding with the ILO’s centenary initiative on the Future of Work, there has been a proliferation of concepts attempting to predict the impacts of advances in new and sophisticated ‘smart’ technologies. Buzzwords like ‘Industry 4.0’ (first developed by German policymakers), the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or the ‘Internet of Things (IoT)’ refer to a range of industrial applications of cyber-physical systems, digital, algorithmic and advanced automation technologies, with the potential to connect data and processes that are highly complex and geographically remote.

Apocalyptic predictions for the labour market abound. According to some accounts, every job under the sun will be automated: workers in factories and call centres, lawyers, civil servants and poets too. As tensions between labour and technology become increasingly difficult to ignore, even the 19th Century Luddites – once reductively maligned as machine-breaking technophobes – have enjoyed a minor resurgence.

Contributors to this issue of IUR weigh up these challenges in different ways. Perspectives from different regions and sectors lead to different prognoses. There is a shared awareness of the need to critically question deterministic approaches to technological development, as well as any further weakening of workers’ collective power. Technological development is steered by human choices. An overarching concern is therefore how organised labour is able to shift the parameters of debate to put technology and (in)equality in the spotlight. As Jim Stanford notes here, it does not seem likely that technological progress will make work disappear. Rather it is workers’ labour that is being rendered increasingly invisible. The Mechanical Turk could hardly be a better metaphor.

It is little wonder then that organised workers across the globe are increasingly turning to digital communication – often tipped as the cyber-silver lining of hyper-globalisation – to make their struggles more visible and build global networks of solidarity. But as LabourStart’s Eric Lee warns, competing for digital attention in an increasingly swamped global network of information is no substitute for organised workers acting collectively. And as new forms of algorithmic management emerge, workers also need to be diligent about their data privacy.

No one is keener to sell us a quick technological fix than big-tech and electronics companies themselves – who perhaps stand to profit most from the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Whether the ‘fix’ is an online campaign or ‘block-chain provenance’, a multi-million dollar industry that claims to solve the issue of supply chain certification, these digital technologies raise a number of questions about the control of information. And if we look at the sectors upon which ‘Industry 4.0’ is being built (big-tech, electronics manufacturing, and mineral extraction) we find a catalogue of labour abuses and anti-union practices. Taking the hype around Industry 4.0’s all-encompassing vision of the future at face value, it would seem like the optimal moment to bring such issues in these sectors firmly into the spotlight. If we are asked to believe that ‘smart’ technologies will improve our future conditions of work, the fact that conditions of systemic barbarity prevail in the production of many of these technologies leaves some room for doubt.

● Libraries and institutions - access IUR Industry 4.0 online through JSTOR

● Other readers - subscribe to IUR in print or electronic format direct with ICTUR

IUR journal brings together the latest news, views and information on trade union rights worldwide, covering key issues from varied perspectives. IUR has an accessible format that is appreciated around the world by an audience of trade unionists, legal practitioners and academics. The journal is available in print and digital formats, with an online archive dating back to 1993.

Previous editions:

IUR 224 ChinaIUR 221 South KoreaIUR 212 Minimum WageIUR 201 Aviation IndustryIUR 223 Right to Strike

Link to reportWork Will Not Disappear.
So We Should Make It Better

Link to reportMore Robots, Fewer Rights: Labour Trends in Electronics Manufacturing

When Algorithms Hire and Fire

Two Perspectives on Platform Work

Worthless Promises in Silicon Valley

Death by Overwork:
Beyond Industry 4.0 in Japan

The Future Will Be Made of Copper…

ICTUR in Action: Interventions
Argentina, China, Colombia, eSwatini, Iran, Italy, Philippines, Spain, UK, Zimbabwe

Link to reportThe Lure of the Quick Technological Fix:
Blockchain and the Case of Cobalt

FIM-CISL vs. Industry 4.0

The Future of Work is Ours

Work and Technology:
Student and Trade Union Perceptions in Portugal

Digital Solidarity or Complacent Clicktivism?

Worldwide news

● The full contents of this edition are available online through JSTOR for libraries, university departments and other institutional subscribers

● Other readers - subscribe to IUR in print or electronic format direct with ICTUR

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.
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