World Employment Report 2001

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

11. Conclusion

We started this chapter with the thesis that traditional industrial relations could be heading for an abrupt demise. The institutions engaged in social partnership, it was suggested, might struggle to remain relevant in an information age.

The evidence of this chapter would seem to suggest that such an argument is too simplistic. Indeed quite the reverse could be argued: that the mechanisms of industrial relations are coping surprisingly well at a time of work reorganisation and economic transformation. We have seen how traditional collective bargaining appears to be functioning efficiently in the telecoms sector. We have looked at the way in which developing forms of work organisation (call centres and telework) and developing types of work status (agency work and self-employment) are being embraced within the overall ambit of industrial relations, and we have also seen how the negotiating agenda has been extended to include such new issues as on-line rights, electronic surveillance and privacy, and copyright and intellectual property. We have looked briefly at a few examples of the way in which ICT itself is being adopted within industrial relations.

It might seem perverse to conclude, therefore, by reiterating that the challenges to conventional industrial relations posed by the transformations wrought by ICT are real ones.

We suggested earlier that the services traditionally provided by labour organisations to individual workers could be supplied in other ways, by new forms of member association or by commercial concerns. This is already going on.

Where would a woman software programmer in Silicon Valley, for example, be likely to turn for services she needed to further her career or protect her conditions of work? It’s possible that she might visit a web-based service run by a trade union, such as Alliance@IBM. It is more likely, however, that she would go elsewhere. She might, for example, decide to visit the website of an organisation which offered to provide ‘a forum for women in or interested in new media and technology to network, exchange job and business leads, form strategic alliances, mentor and teach, intern and learn the skills to help women succeed in an increasingly technical workplace and world’.

This is the mission statement of Webgrrls International, an informal networking organisation first set up by a group of women in New York in 1995. Its slogan, which seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to an earlier, more famous, slogan, is ‘Webgrrls Unite!’.126

In fact, the woman programmer would not need to work in Silicon Valley to benefit from Webgrrls, since in the past five years it has developed chapters across north America, in Europe, Japan, China, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Someone attending recent meetings in Hong Kong, for example, would have been able to discuss work-related issues (such as how to find work on the internet) as well as more technical subjects such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).

Traditional labour organisations might envy the ease at which, using the internet, Webgrrls has developed an international presence in five years. In general, trade unions have only taken a few first steps towards building effective international operations. Industrial relations remains something which happens primarily at, or below, the level of the nation state. Yet globalisation is demonstrating that the primacy in international law and governance of the nation state (the so-called Westphalian model) may be becoming increasingly inadequate.127 The debate over core labour standards at the World Trade Organisation is one sign of the internationalisation of labour issues. Greater use of international institutions, including the ILO, would seem a likely feature of the twenty-first century.

The head of the European Commission’s directorate-general for Employment and Social Affairs Allan Larsson called early in 2000 for a rethink in the organisation of work and the rules of working life, ready for an emerging information society. He went on, "This does not mean deregulation. What it does mean is finding a new balance between flexibility and security… What it means, more than ever, is partnership in change".128

Assessments of the prospects for healthy industrial relations in an information society might suggest that companies have more cause than in the past to develop good relations with their workers. No longer are underlying capital assets the most important factor in the valuation of companies; now it is the intangible capital represented by the collective knowledge held within a company which is becoming more significant. As has been pointed out, "an increasingly large part of the asset base of many organisations disappears as workers leave after their employment finishes for the day".129

But on the other hand, rapid technological change risks leaving many individual workers trapped with inadequate skills and experience. The digital divide between those with and those without access to the new technology is in danger of being replicated at work, in a divide between those lucky few with the skills necessary for a knowledge based economy and those whose skills have become outdated.

The ‘balance’ between innovation and social protection sought by Allan Larsson is surely possible. But to reach it is likely to mean moving beyond the post-1945 paradigm of industrial relations. What constitutes work, what constitutes a workplace, what constitutes a worker, these are all questions where the old answers no longer necessarily apply.