The Director-General of the ILO, in his opening address to the Governing Body, reaffirmed the organisation’s commitment to adapting to ‘The Future of Work’. The talk highlighted uncertainty around the world, much of it arising from the rapidly changing nature of work. Whether described as the ‘gig economy’, ‘platform capitalism’ or the ‘sharing economy’, information technology is disrupting traditional employment.
The ILO sees challenges and opportunities presented by such change. Less formal employment relations can provide flexibility and open the labour market to those excluded, which fits with the ILO’s Decent Work agenda. But they also risk undermining hard-won rights associated with traditional forms of employment. In the world of Uber or Care.com, workers are isolated and forced into competition with each other. This threatens the fundamental right of freedom of association and the ability of workers to bargain for improved conditions. If benefits from new forms of work are to overcome their downside, new forms of organisation may be needed to ensure workers retain their voice.
Moving employment out of the firm and into new relationships mediated by technology need not come at the expense of pay and conditions. However, new ways of working present challenges for workers looking to organise. Whilst workers in an office or factory can organise as part of the daily life of work, those in the ‘gig economy’ may rarely, or perhaps never, meet their colleagues. Early victories have been scored, such as an employment tribunal ruling in favour of Uber drivers who challenged their status as self-employed contractors, but these practices still represent a challenge for the trade union movement. To successfully negotiate this proliferation of ‘informal’ forms of employment, trade unions must learn from workers in developing countries, who have long had to organise around informal work.
An example can be found in the platinum mines of South Africa. The wildcat strikes of 2012, which ended in massacre, were undermined by fragmented labour practices. Workers once employed and housed together were now hired shift by shift, living in sprawling slums. This eroded solidarity and hollowed out the National Union of Mineworkers, which had become an institutionalised body that lost the support of many workers. Chaotic strikes broke out, without support from union leadership, that ended in a shocking act of state violence. In the aftermath, organisers redoubled efforts to grow solidarity between miners working in different mines across different shifts. From this organising work emerged a new union, the ACMU, which two years later successfully organised a strike across the entire industry. This led to a negotiated settlement which involved a substantial increase in pay.
Further inspiration can be found in the work of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), set up to represent self-employed women in India. SEWA faced challenges from the diversity of informal self-employed work, ranging from street vendors to work in agriculture or homeworkers in the garment industry. But they have achieved remarkable success in formalising labour and securing rights for women workers. To do so, they became a “sagnam” (confluence) of three movements – a labour movement, a cooperative movement and a women’s movement. By embracing a wider social role, they could generate the solidarity needed to achieve real progress toward social justice.
So what might South African platinum miners or Indian garment workers tell us about the future for Uber drivers, or self-employed care workers? Clearly, their experiences of work are different, but they demonstrate the importance of new forms of solidarity, which move beyond the traditional workplace. In the future, trade unions must work to bring people together, creating the social networks of solidarity which previously emerged through the natural companionship of work. Whether this means increasing efforts to organise outside the workplace, or organising to bring together workers from a more diverse range of jobs, the experience of developing countries shows what is possible. As technology advances, work will become less structured and more individualised. To organise for social justice, trade unions should accept this change, and fight for solidarity in the face of it.
Edward Pemberton is a Postgraduate Taught student in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.