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  • Writer's pictureChristina J. Colclough

We Don't Know, What We Don't Know

Unless workers and their unions capacity build to understand how digital technologies work, and what causes the harms and otherwise negative impacts on workers, they will forever be one step behind. They simply must know, what they need to know, to collectively reshape the digitalisation of work and workers.

Image by Tachina Lee, available on

Collective Lessons from 2022

During 2022, the Why Not Lab has provided training courses, keynote speeches and workshops for trade unions in all regions of the world. And one lesson stands out: they don't know, what they don't know. Put differently, they - like the majority of folks - do not know how digital technologies work, what data or inferences are, the role of algorithmic instructions, and how all of these together and independently can be impacting workers' rights. They therefore don't know why and how digital technologies affect workers, and therefore don't know where to set in, what questions to ask and demands to make to flush these harms out and remedy them.

Without these insights into what makes digital technologies so different from their analogue ancestors, the depth and the breadth of the often uneven effects of these technologies remain unexplored and uncontested. Instead, unions and workers are left dealing with the consequences after harms are caused rather than putting safeguards and demands in place to as best as possible prevent these harms from ever happening.

Empowering Workers Requires Capacity Building

There is no doubt that to fix this, capacity building is required. Fortunately, this is happening across the world, and we are heavily involved. Three Norwegian unions have collaborated to create a course for shop stewards that is a general introduction to artificiel intelligence systems in workplaces. The global union for public services unions, PSI, is running a 3-year capacity building project Our Digital Future. It is training regional groups of Digital Rights Organisers, trade union leaders and bargaining officers and equipping them with tools and guides to help bridge the gap from theory to practice and strengthen their collective bargaining. The International Transport Federation, ITF, is running a 2 year Union Transformation project that by using the Why Not Lab's Digital Readiness Framework seeks to help unions tap into the potentials of digital technologies - but responsibly and with privacy and rights at heart. Education International has launched a MOOC for their members on the pitfalls, challenges and potentials of EdTech.

Education International's Online Course on the Digitalisation of Education

Many other national and regional unions are leaping into this work too through workshops and conferences on the digitalisation of work and workers. These events are inspiring their continued work to transform their strategies and table new demands in collective bargaining.

Data, Algorithms and AI

So what more concretely do the unions and workers need to learn? First and foremost: data. What it is, from where it is extracted, how it is inferred and otherwise used and what then happens to it. From our everyday lives to the workplace, we can no longer hardly escape this datafication of self and others. A common thought seems to be: "I've done nothing wrong, so who cares if they (the apps or digital platforms) take my data?" Shared by many, this very thought expresses all too well that the connection between data, inferences and algorithms and what jobs we are offered or advertisements or opinions we are fed is not known. Nor is it known that what you do, and don't do, can affect the lives of others. Understanding algorithms, AI and machine learning, is therefore also important. Has an algorithmic system (based on data inputs) found a connection between age, gender, postcode and productivity, then the likelihood of someone getting that job who doesn't match the connection will significantly decline.

(A Why Not Lab presentation held December 2022)

Managerial Fuzz

Yet it is not only the workers who urgently need this capacity building - so too do the employers who are deploying these technologies. Reports from unions from across the world reveal that managers don't know, what they should know either. Maybe the human resource department is using an automated scheduling tool that the IT department has purchased on the order of executive management. In many cases, the division of responsibility between managers with regards to the governance of these technologies has not been made clear. Managerial Fuzz abounds. Who has informed the employees about the system? Do the systems actually do what they claim 'on the tin'? How should they be governed for (un)intended harms and by whom? Who is evaluating the outcomes and making the final decision to go with the system's recommendations or results, or not? What are the rights of those affected?

It is alarming, to say the least, that so many workers report that they never have been informed about what digital technologies the employer is using to manage them. Equally concerning is the fact that managers are deploying technologies they have not properly understood. Yet the employers are, and should be held, responsible for the impacts of these systems.

The Pac Man

Interestingly, all models for algorithmic audits or impact assessments never question whether management has the competencies they need to actually conduct these audits and assessments, or indeed govern the technologies. They all implicitly assume management has. This in turn begs the question: Who is actually in control here? Given that the vast vast majority of digital technologies deployed in workplaces are third party systems, the answer is probably the vendors and/or developers. The labour-management relation is thus becoming a three-party relation, yet few realise this. The increasing power of the Pac Man, i.e. the third party vendors and developers, is occurring at the expense of the autonomy of labour and management. This, in turn, will indirectly if not directly have an influence on worker power.

What's next ?

Looking ahead into 2023, the Why Not Lab's calendar is bursting with exciting projects that will continue to capacity build unions, governments and public services. Together with the unions we will expand on the contents of our courses. We will refine the tools we have piloted to support unions' collective bargaining on workers' digital rights. And we will work with unions to co-develop and implement our Algorithmic Co-governance Guide.

We will also be working on projects with universities bridging the expertise of academia and workers' realities. Excitingly, plans are in the making to author a "book" - a combination of text, podcasts and videos - for workers about the digitalisation of work and workers. And we will not stop doing ours to highlight the gaps identified above within the OECD, the G7, G20, the EU, the WTO and elsewhere with regards to ensuring that digital technologies respect workers' rights, freedoms and autonomy.


This year has been a blast. High fives to every organisation who has shown leadership in the quest to understand and reshape digitalisation!

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