UNI Global Union at Global Union Forum on the Future World of Work

Philip Jennings participated in TUAC’s Forum on Digitalisation and the Future of Work. An important event aimed at bringing the voice of labour into one of the OECD’s biggest ever horizontal projects involving 14 of its committees in 10 of its departments to investigate the impact of digitalisation on our economies.


Day 1 was reserved for the trade union representatives. Jennings referred to the work-streams of UNI Global Union on the Future World of Work in his keynote speech on the urgent need to focus on a Just Transition to the new world of work. Jennings underlined that whilst technological change is nothing new, the speed and magnitude of change in front of us, is. He warned against technological determinism and stressed that right now, in these very times, trade unions have a key role to play in framing innovation and to make sure it puts people and planet first. Jennings noted the dramatic words of Stephen Hawking who recently said:

“The rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining”

Jennings noted the unpreceded power of the Big 6: Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and IBM demands the closest scrutiny:

“The Big 6 are driving artificial intelligence innovations. They sit on the majority of the capital and on the majority of data. We have seen national monopolies in the past but global corporate power on this scale takes us to a new era. Thinking that we have dealt with technological change and job displacement before and therefore have nothing to worry about, is not the way forward. Disruption is everywhere. Politically, economically and socially. If unfettered, Artificial Intelligence can and will blur the boundaries between man and machine. Just read Elon Musk’s recent comment that humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant. I can tell you this, the global trade union movement is ready and prepared to craft solutions.”

The Forum discussed how new forms of employment in the on-demand economy are leaving workers with no rights, no social protection and below poverty line income. Damon Silvers, Policy Director and Special Counsel at AFL-CIO in America cut through the complex discussions of who is an employee and who is not in the gig economy with the very clear point: “Follow the data! If Uber own, control, sell and use the data derived from the drivers and customers, they are the employer. You cannot say that someone is self-employed yet remove their right to own this data”.

On Day 2, OECD officials, national ambassadors to the OECD and external experts were welcomed to the Forum. It would be wrong to say that the OECD is in panic over the future, but the magnitude of its commitment to understanding and finding policy solutions digitalisation and the future of work is telling in itself. It was a welcome opportunity to discuss our key concerns with the department directors, officials and national delegations. Amongst others, we raised the need for regulators to create a level playing field to stop the current race to the bottom we are experiencing in terms of jobs and wages,  where existing companies who play fair are disadvantaged. We demanded, and the OECD took note, that all corporations no matter whether they are physical or online, platforms or not, must pay the social contributions and taxes due. As a participant observed:

“It is correct, digital corporations like any other corporations are dependent on public services (education, health, infrastructure), yet right now they don’t contribute to these services.”

In the session on new business models, Christina Colclough, UNI’s digital specialist,  raised the all-important issue of data rights. Employers are increasingly mining, storing and using data that is derived from employees. This includes biometric data, but also information about employees’ workflows, speed, location etc. Christina added that there are no legal or regulatory provisions or standards in place that give employees and workers’ rights and access to this data. She explained:

“Good corporate governance should include measures that give employees/workers not only access to the data stored, but also influence over how it is used, interpreted and possibly traded. Every employee should have a right to edit their data, and even delete it when leaving the company.”

The Forum provided an excellent opportunity to discuss these matters and more with not only with our trade union colleagues from near and far, but also with the OECD and national ambassadors. The cooperation that TUAC has established with the Global Union Federations is much appreciated and is highly valuable for our work. We look forward to continuing the work with TUAC to ensure our influence is felt.

In November last year the UNI Global Union World Executive Board held a leadership summit on the Future World of Work and several work-streams are in operation from union organising, union innovations, defining the digital footprint in the on-demand world and A.I.