World Employment Report 2001

Negotiating the new economy: The effect of ICT on industrial relations

1. The end of "industrial" relations?

There is an argument which suggests that traditional industrial relations will have little place in the workplace of tomorrow. As we move towards the information age, the old models of labour relations - with all the assembled baggage of collective bargaining between employers and workers" representative bodies - will become increasingly inappropriate to the new realities of work.

According to this point of view, the very term "industrial relations" is itself a giveaway. It harks back to the industrial age, the time when the growth of large-scale production in hierarchically structured organisations led to a need for the collective regulation of employment relationships.

The development of trade union organisations, for example, was predicated upon the existence of the factory system, bringing large numbers of workers together in a central workplace. What if this is no longer the way in which work is organised? What if new technologies permit a new flexibility in the way work is undertaken?

For much of the twentieth century, industrial relations focused on what was seen as the normative way of working. The paradigm has been that of a full-time worker (or indeed "man", since historically the assumption was that the male was the main bread-winner), working under an employment contract for one employer and remaining with their company for many years or until the time came to draw the company pension. This paradigm further was based on a clear separation between work and home spheres of life, between the hours of work and the hours of non-work and indeed also between a person's years of working and their abrupt transition into retirement.

It is possible to discuss the extent to which this paradigm ever adequately reflected working life – the critique has been advanced that it left out of the picture the work undertaken by women, particularly part-time and casual employment, for example. It also ignored working realities in most of the developing world. But nevertheless for most of the developed countries, this paradigm provided a basis not only for the structuring of industrial relations but also for social protection systems and retirement pension arrangements.

The argument now is that, in any case, this paradigm fails to be appropriate for a network economy where value comes from the manipulation of information and knowledge much more than from the production of material goods. In the process of change, a "job" is becoming redefined simply as "work".

AT&T"s vice president for human resources James Meadows put it this way, in a quote attributed to him in the New York Times:

People need to look at themselves as self-employed, as vendors who come to this company to sell their skills. In AT&T we have to promote the concept of the whole work force being contingent, though most of our contingent workers are inside our walls. "Jobs" are being replaced by "projects" and "fields of work", giving rise to a society that is increasingly "jobless but not workless".1

Many writers have engaged with this subject. Research on the growth of flexible working practices undertaken for the OECD identified a number of developments, including changes in the design of jobs, greater complexity, higher skill levels, greater use of team working and also increased delegation of responsibility to lower levels of staff.2

Ulrich Klotz, from the German trade union IG Metall, has described changes in work organisation thus: "Work is splintering into many forms… As the new company models proliferate, forms of work are spreading that we still refer to as "atypical": part-time work, temporary work, limited contracts, telework, contract work and other forms of (pseudo) entrepreneurial work… In short, work is still with us but the stable job is not". He warns that as a consequence trade unions are in danger of losing their traditional "business base".3

ICT permits both the spatial and temporal relocation of work, challenging the idea of a discrete workplace and a discrete working day. However it would be wrong, of course, to see changes in work organisation as simply the result of technology. These changes are being driven by a number of factors. We can identify trends in management practice, including such things as the outsourcing of non-core activities and the reengineering of business processes as also contributing to workplace transformation. However, these developments are closely intertwined with developments in ICT. In an early essay, Manuel Castells suggested that there are two overarching inter-related processes at work, driving change in the workplace: the technological revolution based on microelectronics is one of these, the growing interdependence of the economic system – globalisation - is the other.4

In terms of labour relations what all these changes mean, effectively, is a new implied contract between a company and a worker. The old employer/employee relationship, which offered security and reward to the individual in exchange for corporate loyalty is to go. Instead, individuals are told to take responsibility for their own working life and career, including the responsibility of ensuring that they constantly update their skills. In exchange a company undertakes to empower them in their work, by removing old-style supervisory practices and replacing these by new types of team working, based on performance management. The old master/servant basis to the employment relationship, in other words, is replaced with something more, well, modern.

This sounds a seductive idea, though it blows a gaping hole in the way in which industrial relations, institutionalised in the relationship between employers' representative bodies and trade unions, have traditionally been conducted. If correct, it would inevitably lead also to major changes in social and welfare protection and employment law. In the process, it would also leave today's trade union bodies cast up and redundant, rather in the way that antique steam engines, previously employed huffing and puffing their way through their working day, were left silent and fit only for scrap with the arrival of electricity.

The question explored by this chapter is whether, and if so to what extent, the argument for the end of traditional industrial relations is justified. We will begin by exploring further the challenges which face the social partners, considering how the services they currently offer could be provided in other ways by other agencies. We will then investigate the state of industrial relations in one particular sector which has encountered radical change in recent years, the telecommunications industry, to see what evidence for a paradigmatic shift can be found there.

We will move on to consider in some detail two examples of new work organisation (call centre working and telework) and two areas where "atypical" working has been growing (agency work and self-employment), to ask whether these are or are not being adequately accommodated within organised industrial relations.

We will then turn to consider the degree to which the traditional industrial relations negotiating agenda has been extended by ICT. This will take us into a number of areas, including on-line rights for workers, questions of privacy and electronic surveillance and the increased relevance of copyright and intellectual property rights.

We shall look at examples of how the social partners, and in particular the trade unions, are themselves making use of ICT opportunities. Finally, at the end of this journey, we shall return to the issue posed at the start of this chapter, hopefully in a better position to offer some conclusions.