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Union perspective: gambling on technology at the cost of people

Union perspective: gambling on technology at the cost of people
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The International Trade Union Confederation’s General Secretary Sharan Burrow says, while digitalisation is the tram track of the future, the opportunities and jobs it creates need to be balanced with labour rights, fair transition measures, and fair competition rules for companies. Basic Income, Burrow says, is a dividend that countries should only consider if they are wealthy enough and have put in place fair practices.

Sharan Burrow:Digitalisation is simply like the tram tracks of the future, so it does offer opportunities. You are right that governments are simply behind in regulation, but look at what’s happening now with the convergence of physical companies with big digital companies.

You have an Amazon, for example, which is buying up food companies, financial services, legal services: you name it – it's already a global department store and it's becoming too big to touch. First of all, it treats its workers like robots and the regulation is not actually cleaning that up. But secondly, there are all sorts of implications for small business, for supply chains, and governments are behind with the regulatory framework. So even the business model there is very scary to understand because there are workers' pension funds invested in Amazon, we’ve got no doubt about that.

But when we ask what is, in fact, the profit being made, only their Cloud Computing arm is making a profit. So, when you say to analysts – 'Well what is this, why are people investing in something that is so speculative?' They say, 'Well Sharan it is so big that it's going to make money at some point!' I call that gambling, actually!

But the reality is that these companies are here to stay. Do they have the possibility to generate jobs? Yes, they do. Are we concerned about the shifting nature of supply chains to the extent that we want the map, that we want employers and governments to take responsibility for fair transition measures, for workers in vulnerable communities? Yes. But we are not frightened of negotiating the future. What we don’t want is employers exploiting the future. And even the G-20 said last year that labour rights violations can’t be part of the competition.

So, if you set a fair competition floor you will make sure that those elements of those new social contracts which are universal social protection, a minimum wage on which you can live and raise a family with dignity...

Maithreyi Seetharaman: So basic income?

Sharan Burrow:… and no basic income as it is a very different concept: basic income is an impoverished notion of a social protection floor. Even in Finland, where it was in fact, I would call it a social dividend, and provided that it doesn’t break down social protection systems if they exist at the moment to an acceptable level, then it’s a dividend on which yes, that would be a very nice outomce. But if you’re going to give somebody, you know, even in Europe, even a few hundred euros a month and pretend that it’s going to pay for your healthcare your education and unemployment benefits, you know that’s ridiculous! So this is in fact a nice idea if the world could afford it and everybody could be paid a living wage and you could have social protection systems, and people would have choices – but that’s not the reality. So we say invest first in those that need it to ensure a social protection system and then look at whether you are a wealthy enough country to give your citizens a dividend. But don’t pretend that one equates with the other!