Workers, Work Skills, Trade Unions and the Future of Work

Reshaping Work
11 min readOct 6, 2021

By Adekunle Tinuoye, Micheal Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, Ilorin, Nigeria

Introduction

Work is mankind’s most dynamic and evolving phenomenon. Work is a human endeavour that involves earning some form of wages and engaging in some form of activity. Under the canopy of work, people exchange their skills, competences, experience and time with an employer or group of employers for tangible and non-tangible benefits. Work differs from context and concept, but it is diverse and multiform in nature. Work gives humans a sense of purpose, critical for equitable economic growth, central to poverty reduction and vital for gender equality. People have different reasons for working. But the fundamental reason is to maintain decent and appreciable standards of living. Evidently workers everywhere desire better lives for themselves, families and future for their children via good jobs, respectable quality of life, comfortable homes, convenient means of transportation, participation in community, religious and peer group associations, affordable education at all levels, reasonable healthcare and secure post-employment life. UNDP talked about work that contributes to public good and work that involves caring for others like caregivers, social workers which builds cohesion and bonds between and among families, communities and nations. There are also strong cultural and psychological reasons for working which includes contributing to community development, enhancing personal dignity, challenging obnoxious status quo, strengthening self-worth and seeking to change unfair and oppressive policies. There are examples of people who chose certain occupations in order to attain positions of authority and decision making that would make them enact positive changes in the lives of people. From the foregoing, work is a major means of human interaction both as an individual responsibility and a social activity because humans interface with each other more at and in the course of work than any other time in their lives. Truly, humans spend majorities of their productive life and time at work. Therefore, work possesses an unassailable fundamental importance to growth and prosperity.

Emerging technological, social and economic changes have greatly altered the features, mode, nature, remuneration, manner and perspective of work and organizations in almost all sectors — from security, defence, education, financial, health, communication, entertainment, transportation, aviation, maritime to agriculture. All stakeholders from workers, trade unions, private sector organizations, business enterprises, governments, and public institutions have been affected in one way or the other with varied changes over time in relationships between individuals, work, enterprises, society and the state and the magnitude or impact of these effects depend on where they are placed on the continuum. Thriving economies produce profitable organizations and decent work. Productivity is a key issue at work because it is an indicator of competitiveness, innovation, sustainability and growth which are also connected with prosperous enterprises and skilled manpower. The notion is that organizations that declare profits and turnovers running into millions of dollars every year do so on the back of workers and it is not only organizationally expedient, but morally justifiable that such workers partake in the organizational prosperity. Governments that are genuinely concerned about the economic well-being of their constituents must place more emphasis on creating favourable investment climates for the establishment of worker friendly businesses and enacting laws that uphold basic labour and human rights of workers. This is because there are times that work which should be a source of dignity and fulfilment becomes tools for exploitation culminating in the emergence of trade unions. A key fundamental work right — the right to trade unionism is protected by national constitutions, International Labour Conventions and United Nations International instruments. This is why the International Labour Organization has two important instruments Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, 1948 (№87), and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (№98) which gives workers their most fundamental rights — the right to form and join organizations of their own choosing and to promote and defend their economic and social interests. While Convention 87 gives workers the right to form and join trade unions, Convention 98 contains guarantees and safeguards for trade unions to operate freely and without interference by governments and employers.

Essence and importance of work

That work has multidimensional utility cannot be underscored. Depending on its usage, work can either inhibit or promote human development, organizational productivity and national prosperity. For instance, unfair labour practices, anti-union activities, exploitative jobs and non-standard employment forms which deprives people of basic rights like good wages, good conditions of service and employment security, freedom of association, right to bargain and organize, etc. have negative impacts on workers and families with grim multiplier effects on nations. Gender inequalities at work are emasculative, restrictive and discriminative against women. However, productive, remunerative and satisfying work opportunities guarantees workers welfare and well-being, utilizes their skills, harnesses potentials in addition to boosting creativity, loyalty, and safety. The far-reaching implications of qualitative employment encompasses steep rise in standard of living and life expectancy, accessibility to better-quality and affordable range of products, health care, education, employment opportunities, simplification of production processes and improvement in the quality of lives of the generality of people worldwide.

Qualitative work is mostly associated with individual wellness, family well-being, and thriving communities. People do better in life when they work and earn decent wages. Work becomes a platform where people find meaning and purpose for their lives. A stable and secure job provides people with the capacity to survive financially, connect meaningfully with others, and determine the course of their futures. Work also relates with diversity in terms of age, sex, gender, ethnicity, race, religion, social status, educational background and political beliefs. In the midst of what the International Labour Organization described as a psychological, symbolic, relational, and social space, workers must be culturally sensitive and diversity conscious in terms of learning what offends other people, what they tolerate, their motivations etc. and seeking to relate with people, understand them and make the best out of situations.

Work is a psychological boost. A lot of importance is attached to work and the kind or place of work. It was and is a source and sign of recognition, respect and mobility. For instance, in some African societies, it was practically an anathema at a certain time for a man or woman to be at home when their peers have gone to work. There have been cases of suicide and frustration associated with either economic difficulties or the inability to secure employment. Work is linked with creativity as there are young people in every part of the globe generating ideas and activities across the telecommunications, technological and other related sectors. Work is also value laden, in terms of adding worth to enterprises in form of profits, salaries and wages paid to workers, taxes paid to government at all levels, means of livelihood for external stakeholders and suppliers who do business and finally the consumers and purchasers who buy products.

Why is work changing and its features?

Look at work today in any sector and compare it with what was obtainable 30 or 40 years ago. A worker who was in a coma in 1970 and wakes up in 2021 would find it impossible navigating today’s workplace. He or she would be perplexed about the total and far-reaching transformation. Again, the International Labour Organization identified four connected forces that have and are still interacting to drive change in workplaces and labour markets. These can be described as: the development imperative, stemming from the urgent need to reduce poverty and inequality within and among nations; technological transformation imparted by the diffusion of new means of information processing and communications; an intensification of global competitionfollowing trade and financial liberalization as well as a dramatic reduction of transport and communication costs; and a shift in political thinking towards greater reliance on markets and a reduced role for the state, accompanied by, and sometimes at odds with increased political pressure for improved living and working conditions.

To put it succinctly, technology is the major factor that has accentuated changes in work. A major technological innovation was the use of automatic presses for industrial production which eliminated the jobs required before to handle manual ones in factories. Afterward another innovation with huge impact was the creation of containers managed by cranes at the ports which also reduced a large number of manpower used for loading and unloading goods from ships. Then the gradual replacement of manual typewriters with electronic typewriters, desk top computers, laptops, tablets and android mobile phones led to the steady elimination of the position and functions of the typists, clerks, secretaries and telephone operators in most public and private sector organizations across the world.

Today, the structure, content, and process of work have changed totally. Work is now more cognitively complex/knowledge based, more team-based and collaborative, more dependent on social skills, more dependent on technological competence, more time pressured, less hierarchical and structured in decision making and more mobile and less dependent on geography. The cumulative effect of all these is the growing dehumanization of work and work relations. The increasing feeling that the dignity of work has been devalued has been exacerbated by the prevailing economic thinking of labour simply as a factor of production — a commodity — disregarding the individual, family, community, societal and national significance of human and work. So staggering is this feeling of soullessness of work or growing severance of the bond of cordiality and social solidarity in the world of work that long established practices and values have been discarded, while contractual relationships once respected, viable and durable, now starts and may end abruptly without compunction.

What is meant by future?

The future anticipates continuous and rapid transformative changes in the world of work, driven by technological innovations, demographic shifts, environmental and climate change, and globalization. Relations, exchanges and the interplay between the individual, enterprises, work and society has changed over time, and the pace of this change is accelerating at an unpredictable margin such as the glaring wage and inequalities gaps between workers and employers. It was within the context of an often-unimaginable speed of change, in an unforeseeable future, that the experts and stakeholders make their projections for the future. No doubt trade unions have been badly affected, because any development that weakens the membership strength and financial base of trade unions poses a big threat to it. Current labour legislations in most nations neither fully capture the dictates of the modern world of work not the aspirations of workers especially the increasing volume of platform workers. The inability of trade unions to organize the unorganized and low unionization rates have been linked with the obsolete and restrictive nature of the labour laws. The issue of the revolving door between political office and private sector interests also doesn’t help the cause of either workers or national legislations and has bolstered the position and power of transnational and multinational corporations whom have consistently optimized their proximity to power to subvert national labour laws, undermine the economy, suppress workers and enervate relevant regulatory bodies.

Against this backdrop, how can trade unions actually cope with the challenges of the future of work and protect the interests and welfare of their members? How can trade unions maintain relevance in the future world of work? How can trade unions envision solutions to create a society of broadly shared prosperity in this incipient era? Trade unions have to devise strategies of utilizing their social, economic and political capital to harness their financial power, membership strength, organizational capacity and institutional influence. A great way to start is upscaling their trade union education activities to build consciousness, disseminate knowledge and stimulate paradigm shift. As the world contemplates the future of work, it becomes paramount for workers to have a better understanding of their status, problems, rights and responsibilities as workers, as union members and as citizens. Trade unions must channel their resources to workers education so that workers can have a full grasp about work, dynamics of labour, the economy, and insights into the complex political, social and economic forces that shape workplaces.

Trade unions must apprise their members about the need to acquire relevant skills, aptitude and competences that will make them adjust to the fast pace of workplace changes, and be effective and competent workers that will remain relevant in a world of work that is basically digital and knowledge centric. Key skills that can facilitate entry and retain relevance in the 21st century labour market include proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, leveraging technology to solve problems, higher-order thinking skills such as communication, creativity, collaboration, scenario analysis, decision making, cognitive, practical and socio-emotional skills. Others encompass extensive IT skills like publishing platforms and PowerPoint, versatility in the utilization of Microsoft Cloud 365, capacity to manage several task streams in parallel and organize chaotic ideas into coherent stream of thoughts

Trade unions should also work continuously, tenaciously, and conscientiously to make the workplace more humane, equitable and fair for workers in terms of pushing for workforce quality, living salaries and wages, social contracts, more conducive employment terms and work environments, better workplace policies and tripartite engagements. They must promote new and innovative strategies for organizing, mobilizing and representing that can raise the floor of labor market standards and strengthen the enforcement of tripartite and mutually agreed labor laws and standards. Trade unions need to join hands with the social partner to develop human centric approaches to the future of work, which puts the dignity, position, rights and the needs, aspirations and rights of all the world’s working peoples at the heart of local, national, regional and global economic, social, environmental and political initiatives and policies.

Noteworthy is the response of the International Labour Organization in commemoration of its centenary anniversary at the 180thSession of the International Labour Conference at Geneva Switzerland on the 21st of June 2019 which declared the imperative to act with urgency in order seize the opportunities and address the challenges to shape a fair, inclusive and secure future of work with full, productive and freely chosen employment and decent work for all through their full, equal and democratic participation in its tripartite governance

Conclusion

Today’s incredible products, tools and practices which seem awesome and have caught our imagination would pale into insignificance to what is coming next. Whatever the narrative is, the future of work is an exhilarating and electrifying one which will leverage on new tools, technologies and work techniques to boost human precision, stimulate productivity, enhance safety and augment efficiency. It is one that harbours both ominous and good omens for all the stakeholders in the world of work. The negative impacts are felt disproportionately in developing countries. Thus, stakeholders must start thinking about policies and programs that can balance the costs and benefits and the outcomes of the future world of work. National, organizational and union systems can create inclusive mechanisms to work on these outcomes in terms of maximizing benefits, managing shocks and minimizing risks. Trade unions should realize that technologies could have extra costs for organizations and the implications could be to downsize. Therefore, the focus should be on devising ways to ensure workers acquire relevant skills that can be useful in the future of work and guarantee that technology serves to support, rather than replace, workers. This is because no matter what happens in the future of work, human workers would continue to be indispensable in the production of goods and services.

The opinions and views expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Reshaping Work.

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Reshaping Work

We inform, inspire, and challenge future of work discussions by organising events and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue.