Digital economy threatens jobs, warn unions

David Joyce, Ictu equality officer.
David Joyce, Ictu equality officer.

A rapidly increasing reliance on technology and the drive for a low-carbon economy could threaten thousands of jobs unless they are properly managed, two separate reports warn.

Impact and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) raise significant concerns that many people could be left behind as Ireland embraces 21st-century advances.

David Joyce, Ictu equality officer, points out that, while the number of devices connected to the internet is expected to reach more than 20bn by 2020, “some 50% of the world’s population still has no access to the what we call the ‘worldwide web’”.

“So unless there is massive and rapid investment in connecting those 50%, we are likely to see a huge increase in inequality between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, with dramatic economic and social consequences. Advances in robotics, nano and bio-technology, machine learning and 3D printing can deliver enormous benefits to society. At the same time, these advances will have profound consequences for existing jobs and people at work today. Some estimate that up to 60% of existing work could be partially automated over time, with up to 10% of jobs lost completely,” he said.

He said virtually all studies show lower-skilled or ‘routine intensive’ jobs are most at risk, though there will also be an impact on higher skilled work. Mr Joyce also said workers in the digital economy must enjoy the same rights and protections as workers in other parts of the economy.

He warned about the “gig economy” — short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs — in which he said workers are expected to renounce their rights to employment contracts, regularised working hours, social security, and even job security: “In fact none of these standard protections seem to apply once the goods and services are delivered via an app or a web platform.”

Meanwhile, in its report ‘A just transition to a low-carbon economy’, Impact says that, while climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity in the 21st century and transition to a low-carbon economy is a policy imperative, the social implications of the transition have not had sufficient attention.

The union said some groups in society have mobilised in opposition to policies and aspects of low-carbon development: “In some cases, opposition has come from working people who are afraid of losing their jobs or part of their income. It is an understandable fear.”

The union called on the Government to, among other things: Assess the employment and other social aspects of decarbonisation plans and programmes; give citizens and communities a bigger stake in low-carbon developments; make environmental tax measures revenue-neutral by using cash raised to offset the negative employment and social impacts of decarbonisation; undertake an audit of the skills required to support a low-carbon transition and invest in training and reskilling; and support income replacement measures for those affected by decarbonisation policies.

“We need a greater focus on the social and jobs dimensions of low-carbon development to facilitate a just transition that recognises and addresses the genuine fears of workers dependent on high-carbon technologies, and the concerns of the communities that we ask to host low- carbon and other green infrastructure,” said Impact deputy general secretary, Kevin Callinan.


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