4th Industrial Revolution impacts relevancy of Trade Unions!

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The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) has become a buzz word in many forums discussing global economic trends. The revolution is presented as the next inevitable event that will sweep the entire world.

As such, everyone, and everywhere is supposed to embrace it without question. However, embedded in the 4IR is sophisticated re-organisation of workplaces. At the centre of 4IR is the extensive use of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and quantum computing among others. All these aspects will ultimately minimise the human element in the production process and all other value adding activities in the economy.

This recognition begs a question on how Trade Unions should respond to the 4IR given the fact it is the workers that are going to be the immediate casualty of the revolution. Should Trade Unions buy into the rhetoric that 4IR is inevitable or that the only option Trade Unions has is to reskill its members so that they can remain relevant to this phase of industrialisation?

This article unpacks the 4IR in the context employment and protecting of workers interests. It proposes alternative view and approach to the 4IR phenomenon that Trade Unions can consider in the interest’s job retention, at least in the interim.

The Industrial Revolutions

The 1st Industrial Revolution (1IR) used water, coal and rudimentary improvement in technology to mechanize production.

The 2nd Industrial Revolution (2IR) relied on electric power to drive mass production. Accompanied by improved transport systems, mass produced goods found markets globally keeping the momentum of mass production continuing.

The 3rd Industrial Revolution (3IR) was ushered by drastic improvements in electronics and information technology which enabled automated production.

The 4IR goes a notch higher in terms of technology of production and human relations within production processes. Some have explained the 4IR as a ‘fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres’.

Growing gap

While industrialisation, across all the previous revolutions, brought about increase in volume and variety of manufactured goods, and improved livelihoods for some people, it was also characterised by a growing gap between the haves and the have nots.

This gap has increased with the progression from the first revolution to the now unfolding 4IR.

Effect on employment

What is not contestable is that the 4IR will reduce the number of people employed in work places. At the extreme, it will eliminate the human element in many production systems. This is a fundamental issue of concern to all developing countries especially those with growing populations, such as South Africa.

Creating jobs that enables meaningful and dignified living for its people is a key aspiration of the South Africa and the African continent at large. Thus far, it has remained a moving and an unachieved target partly because the structure of economic systems on the continent is not people oriented.

Economic growth realised in post-apartheid South Africa has not been high enough to reduce unemployed. This has been exacerbated by the phenomenon of jobless economic growth. The 4IR, if embraced unconditionally, will make worse the joblessness in the country.

Change in skills

Over and above …


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Read this article by Dr Martin Kaggwa, Executive Research Director, Sam Tambani Research Institute (SATRI), as well as a host of other topical management articles written by professionals, consultants and academics in the June/July 2018 edition of BusinessBrief.


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