How Digitalization Is Transforming the World of Work
Mapping labour relations and labour struggles in Europe’s new digital economy
In June 2021, the European Commission and the European Council approved the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Mechanism of the Next Generation EU funds (better known as European funds). This decision has meant an injection of 750,000 million euro to be distributed among all the member states of the European Union, of which 144,000 million correspond to Spain.
The Spanish state requested 69.528 billion euro in the first tranche, the part of direct transfers that do not generate debt. It is quite likely that it will request the next tranche in 2023, which could mean another injection of almost 80 billion euro in the form of a loan, to deploy a series of investments promoting “green and digital transition”.
To access their share, the executives of the different countries presented strategic plans delineating ways out of the crisis within this “green and digital” agenda. The Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (PRTR) is the document drafted by the Spanish government to access these almost 70 billion euro. Some 28 percent of these funds are to be allocated to “digitalization”, one of Europe's main proposals for economic transformation. But absent from these plans to transform and boost the economy through the injection of these funds is any analysis of the negative consequences that this “digital gamble” may have on the world of work.
This report addresses issues such as: what exactly is digitalization? How will it affect our economy? What about our labour rights and levels of employment? How is the distribution of these tools throughout our territory and productive framework being assured?
First, it must be stressed that new technologies are not the genesis of casualization and massive job losses. As Aaron Benanav explains in his book Automation and the Future of Work, the chronic under-demand for labour — accompanied by recoveries without more job creation, stagnant wages, and widespread job insecurity — stems from the “slowdown” in the economy, recognized by mainstream economists as “secular stagnation” or “Japanification”. Its causes can be found in an industrial overcapacity, which, in the words of Benanav, has killed the manufacturing growth engine, and no alternative to it has been found, least of all in the slow-growing, low-productivity activities that make up the bulk of the service sector.
In his book, the author tells the story of what has happened to the world economy and its workforce over the last 50 years. According to his analysis of trend and productivity data, there is now a real and persistent underdemand for labour in the EU, but its causes are not automation. There is another problem: labour productivity growth rates are slowing. As economic growth slows down, job creation rates fall, leading to a reduction in overall labour demand:
Put on the reality-vision glasses of John Carpenter’s They Live, which allowed the protagonist of that film to see the truth in advertising, and it is easy to see a world not of shiny new automated factories and ping-pong-playing consumer robots, but of crumbling infrastructures, deindustrialized cities, harried nurses, and underpaid salespeople, as well as a massive stock of financialized capital with dwindling places to invest itself.
The situation we face is not the result of a series of “technological changes”, but rather a mixture of the effects of depleted economies trying to revive themselves by cutting social spending, coupled with the socialization of private debt that generated a deregulated financialized system. This trend is aggravated by a new global recession brought about by the impact of COVID-19 and the realization that we live on a finite planet, which will not cope with an increase in production, but needs the opposite.
In this context, we see the proliferation of new organizational forms of business and labour exploitation that have used technology to accelerate the processes of casualization and give even more power to capital over labour. It has been called many names, starting with the misleading use of “sharing economy” and continuing with others such as “platform capitalism”, “digital economy”, or “turbo-capitalism”. But what they have in common is the use of new technologies that, in many cases, has led to the acceleration and increasing sophistication of old processes of labour exploitation or control.
Moreover, these technologies, together with false premises of progress, have served as a perfect blind for the owners of the technological means of production to hide behind, while they introduce euphemisms such as “collaborator”, “connection”, “flexibility”, or “freedom” into the social imaginary and thereby veil the same strategies of exploitation and precarization of labour that the working class has been suffering for years.
There is therefore a huge risk that the winds of digital transition coming from Europe shore up a system of labour exploitation and control through public funding of the development of these technologies, the use of which is beyond public control and beyond the reach of workers and trade unions. The classic battle between capital and labour is now being cross-cut by technological improvements that, apart from being in the hands of capital, are further tipping the scales and piling the benefits of these technological developments into the hands of big business, while the rest continue to fall into the depths of precariousness and inequality.
This analysis, written by turba! comunicación in collaboration with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Madrid Office, aims to identify what these risks are as well as point out recent labour struggles in the digital economy and platform capitalism. In this context, is it possible to imagine a world in which we all work less, have access to everything we need to live well, move as a society to take care of the most vulnerable, and also have space for leisure? It is possible.
Technology is an opportunity if we are mindful of these areas and prevent digitalization from being just another excuse for the accumulation of power by capital against the rights of the rest. For this, digitalization needs to be accompanied by a transversal strategy that puts labour rights at the centre. Thus, it is necessary to study what these new labour relations are and their negative effects on the rights of the working class.
turba! Comunicación is a Madrid-based communications agency working on ecofeminist and social issues.
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