Assessing the Social Dimension of the Digital Economy: Policy Frameworks for Quality Jobs of Tomorrow

6 December 2016

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and co-author Anna Byhovskaya - leading voices on workers' rights - write about the pivotal role of unions in facilitating social dialogue and ensuring a fair transition toward quality jobs in the digital era.

This report was featured as a chapter in “TRANSFORMATIONS IN TECHNOLOGY, TRANSFORMATIONS IN WORK”- a joint report co-authored by the global partners of JustJobs Network.

The “digital economy” is increasingly penetrating all aspects of social and economic life. There is an urgent need to map out the effects of such pervasive digitalization on workers across the globe.

Focussing on the effects of the digital economy in industrialized countries, this report by General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation Sharan Burrow, and co-author Anna Byhovskaya, explains the social impact of innovations in technology that are sweeping the globe at an unprecedented pace and scale. These changes are amping up automation processes, re-structuring service delivery and fueling more complex value chains. Technological advancements bring opportunities for productive growth, but they also pose the threat of displacing workers from jobs and of increasing “casualization” of work.

By looking at the effects of digitalization on occupational tasks in existing jobs, and the nature of new jobs created directly by the digital economy, especially in context of online platform-enabled work, this report stresses on the need for social dialogue in ensuring that the flexibility gains from technology advance together with workers’ well-being and protection.

It is in this context that the role of unions becomes exceedingly important. If the effects of transformations in technology on the world of work are not managed carefully, labor markets will become increasingly polarized – with high-wage, stable jobs for those with specialized skills on one end, and low-wage service sector jobs that are hard to automate but easy to place under non-standard and potentially exploitative employment relationships on the other end, and not much left in the middle. There is an urgent need to formulate policy frameworks to respond to these transformations, which include consultations with worker representatives to develop fair transition strategies, appropriate work arrangements, and training.

Healthy industrial relations are linked to greater income stability and distribution. Unions are crucial for guaranteeing good working conditions, and overseeing and managing the effects of outsourcing and displacements resulting from technological change. The authors of this report recommend an expansion of union membership and collective bargaining coverage in the context of the digital economy rather than their dilution. Only then can the benefits of technological advancements be harnessed by all.