A Future of Unsustainable Work?
Article written for the Danish Insurance Sector Union and published in Danish here. The below is the original English language article
Working from home has it’s obvious advantages. You get to skip the long commute times, you can organise your day more freely, you can juggle more things at once, like putting the washing over and hang it up. It also has its disadvantages: you can feel lonely, isolated, or stressed by not having a clear boundary between work life and private life. As a wise woman said to me recently: We are not working from home, we are living at work.
COVID-19 has forced us to adapt, think differently and cope. Companies are also adapting. Not least spurred by reports from employees that working from home makes them more productive, many have now decided to let their employees work permanently from home. Facebook, Dropbox, some parts of Google are here taking the lead. Some banks too - allowing traders to trade from home - albeit under a complex monitoring and surveillance system. The advantages for companies are many: an obvious one being that they can substantially reduce their expensive office space.
Whilst the here and now is working for the majority, we must dare look into the glass ball and ask what the long-term consequences of remote work might be on work, and on our contracts and collective agreements.
The Hybrid Company
Let’s dive into it. Have you noticed that the words “hybrid-work” or “hybrid-companies” are already creeping into the daily press? Hybrid work relates to a mix of work forms - working from home, or remotely, to working on location. The hybrid company is one that exists virtually and to a limited degree physically. Here office spaces are vastly reduced, probably decentralised to smaller hubs scattered across the country and/or the world.
In this future, workers won’t have a choice as to whether they want to work from home. You will be forced to. The thing is: who are your colleagues? And where are they actually? Nothing prevents a hybrid company from hiring remote workers from entirely different parts of the world. A job is a job and tasks need to be fulfilled. The internet sets no geographical boundaries. Your colleagues might well be in India, Latin America, the Philippines or Svendborg. For the company it doesn’t matter as long as the job gets done. With A.I. driven translation software, even language boundaries become less important.
The Rise of Precarious Work
Assuming this is a viable future, we then simply must ask what this will mean for our employment contracts? Why would a company continue to offer permanent, open-ended contracts to their workers? Jobs can be broken down into tasks. These tasks can then be put out there on a global labour market and given to whoever the company sees is best qualified.
We see this already happening in the rising number of bogus self-employed workers - not least in the gig economy. So you will be left to compete on speed, qualifications and not least price against workers from all corners of the world. It isn’t hard to imagine what implications this will have on wage levels. We simply risk a race to the bottom that will put workers in more expensive parts of the world, you for example, at a huge disadvantage. In a labour market of precarious work, former colleagues will become competitors. You will be pitched out against one another as you bid in on the tasks or projects available. The individualisation of work will be complete. Imagine what this will mean for our mental health, our wellbeing? Our ability to sustain ourselves?
Now, I understand if you are slightly spooked at this point, and I also understand if you are thinking that your work is too important for it to be subject to this kind of a future. In a not so distant past, you might well have been right. But the rise of digital tools and their exponential growth will facilitate, for the vast majority of jobs, the transition to a boundaryless, global labour market.
On a side note, I need to mention that in current digital trade negotiations, one of the proposals is to remove the requirement that companies have a physical and therefore legal presence in a country in order to sell their services there. If these negotiations succeed, the door is left wide open for, in your case, insurance companies from anywhere in the world to sell insurances in Denmark. This is a first major opening for the establishment of virtual companies. Which in turn will open up for a truly global labour market.. and before we know of it, the glass ball scenario has become real.
The union response
Only strong trade union action can prevent this future scenario from becoming a reality. Firstly and immediately, shop stewards and trade unions must pay careful attention to what companies are saying about remote work, and on which hires they do, and under which contractual relations. Secondly, trade unions nationally and internationally must get engaged in these digital trade negotiations and speak to their governments about them. In your case, the EU has the negotiation mandate on behalf of member states. Is the Danish government fully aware of the consequences of these negotiations?
Thirdly, national unions must demand that their global federations continue to engage in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) to ensure that all workers across the world have decent work and wage levels. Fourthly, we should all recognise that work is work, and all workers should have the same social and fundamental rights. The rise of the gig economy and other forms of precarious work has been facilitated by out-of-date social protection regimes that mean it is an economic advantage for companies to make work more precarious. This has to stop.
Fiftly, we need to discuss competition and innovation with the companies. Much research - my own included - proves that strong employer-employee relations, high levels of trust and dialogue facilitate innovation and learning. If work gets broken into pieces and workers get individualised, what will happen to the companies’ ability to adapt and change? Whilst the hybrid company might be a money-saving model, it could also well be the beginning of the end for many companies. And lastly, we need to talk about taxation and push for new models for corporate taxation in a world of no boundaries and no physical presence. This too should be a top priority for your government.
Whilst our glass ball scenario here can be seen as overly negative and dramatic, it would be wise not to disregard it. We already have indications that it is a viable future, maybe not tomorrow, nor in a year. But soon.
Download the article in Danish by clicking on the image