Digital workplaces, unions and trust

Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC)

Social protection and representation are as important as ever in the new economy. 

In 1980s Britain a leading government figure famously told the unemployed to get on their bikes and find a job. By 2000 that quip might have been “get on the Net and start up your dot.com”. During the NASDAQ boom of recent years, the advice made some sense, and getting a job with a new economy star firm was a tantalising option for many. But then came the hype: the business cycle was dead, we were told, and the hierarchical relationships between employees and employers had been flattened forever.

All too good to be true it seems, as dot.coms fold and lay off their workers. Economists are now wisely telling us that while there may be a new economy, old economy principles must still apply, such as good management, financial prudence, and so on. These basics apply to labour too, like stable work environments. But then again, workers have always played a central role in the e-commerce success story. The trouble is they can also be its victims; according to reports, US dot.coms axed some 40,000 jobs in December 2000. Redundancy, e-dundancy, it is all the same in the end.

New technology promised to empower job-seekers, many of whom have done very well, notably in e-commerce. But the accelerating pace of change and mounting work pressure are causing anxiety and insecurity. This is not a good foundation for a high performance economy. Nor would the spectre of unemployment help if the US slowdown continued, despite interest rate cuts, or spread around the world.

It is high time we stepped beyond the simplistic notion of “labour market flexibility”, where workers are expected to give up social protection, decent wages, or job security. We must restore the objective of achieving full employment by ensuring that economic policies translate potential productivity increases into real social and economic gains.

Ironically, in today’s individualistic society the importance of unions (i.e. workers acting collectively) may well increase globally, confounding those who predicted that unions would wane. In 1999, the membership of affiliates to TUAC in North America and the United Kingdom went up for the first time in two decades. Meanwhile, the US communications workers union (CWA) has seen its membership soar from zero to 10,000 in cell phone communications in just a few years.

These trends reflect a real demand among workers for protection and representation, including new economy workers. After all, working in a dot.com warehouse is not devoid of old economy realities. New unions are emerging, such as the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTec), to campaign for basics like job security, fair compensation, a company voice and education. Its membership includes mobile professionals who now recognise that moving from job to job has its downsides, especially if contracts become scarce, jeopardising pension payments and entitlements for instance. This type of uncertainty is driving isolated workers together, even across borders.

Beyond representation, unions encourage training too; indeed, OECD research shows that unions tend to raise the amount of training done by firms, spurring innovation and productivity growth. And let us remember that not everyone has benefited from the e-commerce boom. Too many workers still live below the poverty line.

E-commerce clearly has great potential for countries everywhere. Unions can counterbalance the centrifugal forces created by globalisation and technological change in a way that individuals cannot. Like businesses, they have to evolve with the times. But like businesses, the basic ground rules remain the same.

©OECD Observer No 224, January 2001




Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q4 2017 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.6% May 2018 annual
Trade: +2.7% exp, +3.0% imp, Q4 2017
Unemployment: 5.4% Mar 2018
Last update: 06 Jul 2018

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Watch the webcast of the final press conference of the OECD annual ministerial meeting 2018.
  • International co-operation, inclusive growth and digitalisation lead the themes of the 2018 OECD Forum in Paris on 29-30 May, under the banner of What brings us together www.oecd.org/forum. It is held alongside the annual OECD Ministerial Council Meeting on 30-31 May, chaired this year by France with a focus on multilateralism www.oecd.org/mcm.
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • Ambassador Aleksander Surdej, Permanent Representative of Poland to the OECD, was a guest on France 24’s English-language show “The Debate”, where he discussed French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Papers show “past coming back to haunt us”: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria tells Sky News that the so-called "Paradise Papers" show a past coming back to haunt us, but one which is now being dismantled. Please watch the video.
  • When someone asks me to describe an ideal girl, in my head, she is a person who is physically and mentally independent, brave to speak her mind, treated with respect just like she treats others, and inspiring to herself and others. But I know that the reality is still so much different. By Alda, 18, on International Day of the Girl. Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Read some of the insightful remarks made at OECD Forum 2017, held on 6-7 June. OECD Forum kick-started events with a focus on inclusive growth, digitalisation, and trust, under the overall theme of Bridging Divides.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018