The deployment of new technology under capitalism has always been a huge challenge for workers. This is because new technology is basically used to reduce costs and increase productivity. By doing this it reduces demand for labour and since labour costs are one of the most important costs that companies must pay, this allows companies to increase their profit margins. Not only that, but decreasing the size of the workforce increases the number of people seeking work, which increases the bargaining power of company owners and reduces that of workers. So deploying new technology benefits company owners both directly and indirectly.
We think that there are three basic ways that technologies are affecting workers today – some technologies are replacing labour, other technologies are intensifying labour, and some are enabling new ways of organising work processes - as is occurring with the growth of online platforms such as Uber or Upwork. There is overlap between these categories, but it is possible to ask how far any new technology enables one of these things to happen.
Labour Replacement Technology
These are technologies that outright replace human labour. They are usually bundled together as with driverless vehicle operation, robots and automated port cranes, or they can be ‘invisible’ as occurs with algorithms that can manage a labour process (whether self check-in at an airport, or a warehouse management system).
Labour replacement technology is usually expensive and disruptive because it forces other work processes around it to be changed.
So far across our sectors we have seen this type of technology in urban rail networks (driverless metro or tram systems, digital signals systems and automated ticket vending machines), in airports (customer service desks, check in services, aircraft washing), in ports (automated cranes and trucks), warehouses (automated operation systems, fork lifts, cranes and sorting systems) amongst other areas.
Labour Intensification Technology
These are technologies that intensify human labour by making it more productive. By doing this they inevitably remove scope for creativity and limit capacity for decision-making. This form of technology is usually cheaper than other forms and is less disruptive.
So far across our sectors we have seen this type of technology deployed to operate vehicles remotely, whether at sea or on land. We are also beginning to see the introduction of remote towers in airports, which will enable owners to manage several airports simultaneously. We have also seen the increasing use of operation management algorithms (in last mile delivery for example), as well as the use of GPS tags in combination with other sensors in long distance freight shipping. We have seen the introduction of smart glasses in warehouses, and the use of sensors in working equipment. Use of surveillance equipment such as microphones and cameras has increased as well.
These forms of technology have the clear potential to worsen working conditions by not taking workers’ needs into account – for example applying the same work rate across age cohorts and genders, or ignoring specific medical needs. It is also unclear what effects long-term and constant exposure to some of these technologies may have on health. These technologies also have the potential to be used to monitor workers, increasing the risk of abuses by management or owners.
At one level Online Platforms use software to organise a labour process, connecting demand and supply for labour. Platforms like Upwork connect jobs (or tasks) with people willing to do them. Platforms like Lyft or Uber connect drivers with passengers, and platforms like Deliveroo or Foodora connect restaurants with customers via delivery workers. The platform usually denies being an employer, despite often setting pay and determining conditions of employment. This opens substantial scope for abuses of workers’ rights. This has led some to state that online platforms enable 19th century forms of employment through 21st century technology. Online platforms can also function to connect low wage, unorganised labour in the Third World with markets in the developed world – so they organise a form of digital migration which exerts a downward pressure on pay in some sectors.
In the transport sector online platforms like Yodel and Uber have made inroads into last mile delivery as part of the deregulation and privatisation of the postal sector. In some areas logistics providers are partnering with online platforms. Some startups are trying to develop platforms for shipping freight (Freightos). Across most of our sectors the most common platforms encountered are those that function like employment agencies.
At the moment there is little regulation of online platforms, although there is a clear tendency in this direction across the world.