A new frontier

A new frontier

More than 100 experts, activists, and academics gathered at UNI's headquarters for the “Future World of Work Leadership Summit,” a discussion on the challenges and solutions to digitalisation.

Fighting inequality was one reoccurring theme of the summit. Konstantinos Karachalios, Managing Director of the IEEE-SA, said: 

There are credible analyses showing that the era of digitization, starting in the 1970s, has not improved social justice and equality, neither at national nor at cross national levels. In particular, there are credible analyses showing that inequality has never been greater in the history of humanity. It seems that never have so few accumulated wealth and power over so many. More specifically, statistics show that there is an almost total disconnect between productivity increase and a typical worker’s compensation, precisely since the onset of the digitization era.”

We thought the connectivity of the internet would lead to democracy, but we walked into this with closed eyes and open hearts

Renata Avila Pinto

Human rights and tech lawyer Renata Avila Pinto warned of a growing “digital colonialism” which allows a handful of digital firms in rich countries control the digital destiny for the rest. “We thought the connectivity of the internet would lead to democracy, but we walked into this with closed eyes and open hearts,” she said: 

“We did not realize the power given away to these companies in terms of distributing our information.”

But the summit did not just dwell on digitalization’s dangers. It also offered hope.

Valerio De Stefano, a labour law professor at KU Leuven, outlined solutions to the problems faced by platform workers. He stressed that, despite misconceptions, many workers’ livelihoods depend on the gig economy. It does not provide a supplementary income, but subsistence, and it must be regulated as work.

“Freedom of association and collective bargaining are human rights, and, as far as I know, self-employed people are human,” 

He continued: “Everyone is entitled to join a union and have collective bargaining. Non-discrimination is also a human right, and it needs to apply to all workers. But when we use algorithms and ratings to judge workers, these ratings can reflect biases and prejudice. We need to address this.”

On the topic of ratings, Prof. De Stefano suggested one reform that would give platform workers more power over the terms of their employment—control over the ratings they often spent years building.

“Ratings can lock an employee in to a platform. They must be portable. They are the biggest source of capital for workers in the platform economy. If workers want to move from platform to platform, they should be able to take the ratings they’ve earned with them.”

Writers Guild of America—East, Executive Director Lowell Peterson said:

“The fundamental challenge of digital platforms is how to build power in a fractured workplace.”

To overcome this fragmentation, the Guild positioned itself as a professional and creative centre for its membership. He also said that building engagement on social media then taking it offline was also key. These steps have helped the WGA grow by 25 percent over the past few years. But the lessons learned by the WGA can be transferred beyond its core industries, which regularly use short term contracts.

“All of our industries are looking like the entertainment and media industry. In industries relying more on contingent work, you have to plan broad campaigns and organize multiple employers at the same time. Density is key.”

Christina Colclough, Director of Platform and Agency Workers at UNI, noted that

“in the future, 15-20 percent of the world’s GDP will be based on data. Employers can monitor, track, and exploit workers’ data details—using them to assess statistics and using them to hire and fire workers. Data is the new frontier for unions and workers’ rights in the digitalized workplace.”

Avila Pinto, the human rights lawyer, offered that unions need to not only protect workers’ data, but to think about how they can use data. “We can work together to create a space of resistance and creativity and use our data for our benefit and not for the benefit of the companies,” she said.

ITU Senior Program Officer for Digital Inclusion Roxana Widmer spoke on the potential for technology to close the gender gap.

“ICTs can be powerful equalizers of abilities, empowering people to fulfil their potential, and thus creating inclusive societies,” she said.

However, enacting the policies and solutions need to right the course will not be easy. Dr. Helen Blakely from Cardiff University,

“The future is contingent on the choices we make today—the social world of the future will be mediated by political power struggles. Unions must be at the forefront of these conversations in order to advocate for their members.”

UNI General Secretary Philip Jennings underscored the importance in gaining more control over our data and the process of digitization, closing the day by stressing that,

“we are not just talking about the organization of our work but our life and our societies.”