Last week I attended a symposium organised by JILAF (Japan International Labour Foundation) which brought together business and trade union representatives from the US, Germany, Japan and the UK to discuss the 4th industrial revolution, sharing economy and employment practices across countries.
The objective was to understand how different countries viewed the use of new automation and digital technologies, what the advantages and disadvantages were and what new labour and employment practices and regulation were being explored to manage the transition.
The key lessons from the symposium are set out below.
Technology is here to stay we can't avoid it
From automation technologies, to AirBnB, to freelancing platforms - in all countries there were examples of new technologies across the economy changing business practices
- From the US we heard about the emerging automation technologies in the hospitality industry
- From Japan we heard about the growing use of crowd-sourcing platforms as a way to supplement income and
- From Germany we heard about the long-standing tradition of cooperatives and how that differed to the growth in the sharing economy
- And from the UK I presented our work on the 4th industrial revolution and how digital technologies were being used in manufacturing
The main message from all countries is that this is happening. Business practices are changing and with it the employer-employee relationship as we shift from a capital economic model organised round markets, to an information/knowledge economic model organised around networks and platforms.
Benefits vary by country but similar themes
My overview of 4IR also touched on a shared benefit recognised across countries, the opportunity to increase productivity - particularly in the UK's case for manufacturing.
We also heard about the challenges being faced by Japan to address productivity, with an even more pressing issue of a significantly declining (and ageing) population profile - automation technologies are seen as an opportunity to address this by filling gaps in the workforce.
Different regulatory approaches being trialled
Across the symposium we heard different approaches being trialled across the four countries, with various asks from trade unions.
From the UK the TUC called for a skills revolution with greater inclusion of the workers voice and for productivity benefits to flow through to workers, including a shift to a four day week. They also called for the reintroduction of the Individual Learning Account to allow workers to determine their own training needs.
From EEF's perspective something similar to the ILA should be recreated to allow workers to manage their own skills requirements at the many stages of their career.
From Germany we heard about new definitions being needed for employer and employee and a close eye kept on pay disparities, particularly on gender pay.
The representative from German business also talked about other countries (such as Japan) needing to introduce more flexible workplace practices such as a 'time account', where employees bank their overtime hours and use these to cover quieter months, allowing wages to be smoothed across the year. Such flexibility, it was argued, would make countries more attractive places for investment.
From the US we heard about the proactive work being done by Unite Here to ensure that technology adoption is subject to negotiation with workers being offered opportunities to upgrade their jobs in the face of new technologies.
Here they are taking the approach of potential jobs losses in principle being 'subcontracted to robots' and starting with that principle to negotiate technology adoption clauses in contracts.
These principles, which have been adopted in the Las Vegas hospitality sector, include:
- A 180 day notice if an employer wants to introduce new technology
- The right to bargain over tech change
- Atime extension of workplace benefits (healthcare) after a job is lost as a result of technology change
- The right of employees to train into new jobs created as a result of the business adopting new technology and
- An enhanced severance payment for workers who lose their jobs as a result of technology adoption.
The main message from representatives was that technology will not wait for regulation. There needs to be some proactivity from policy makers to answer the core question - who owns the future (and as a result, to who do the benefits flow?).
Questions on both who owns and is responsible for the cultivation and investment in information and knowledge (either human or AI) or the ownership of the platforms and networks needs to be answered. These will need to be answered soon so that the employer-employee relationship (if those distinctions will even be relevant in the future) can be answered.
In the absence of policy makers answering this question, as the representatives from DGB (Germany's trade union) pointed out - platform operators will 'make their own laws'.
The good news is as a survey from EEF found, the debate on job losses is balanced – it’s time to bring that debate out into the open.