When governed well, digital advances can benefit workers, improve public services, break down barriers to access and build democratic power over our data commons.
But if they are geared towards private extraction, digitalisation exacerbates inequality, diminishes labour influence, undermines democracy and gives private corporations control over the most significant stores of information in human history, to use for whatever ends suit them.
If unions are ready to shape the digital transformation in the public interest, there is a huge opportunity to grow labour power, improve public services and win democratic control over our data.
But to do this, we must build an understanding of how the current transformation is being shaped to serve private actors and be ready to effectively challenge their power.
Winning this debate requires developing and effectively communicating a positive, alternative model and vision, where digital transformation is publicly governed and shaped for the collective good.
The key questions are not about the technologies themselves, but how they are implemented, by whom and for what purpose. This has deep implications for reshaping power relations between capital and labour.
PSI's Digitalisation Project - Our Digital Future
This three year project is designed to equip union leaders members and activists with the skills needed to shape the digitalisation debateFind out more and get involved!
The Post-Pandemic digital era
COVID-19 has all too clearly shown how digital tools have become an integral part of our work and societies.
In the public sector, workers are faced with increased surveillance and monitoring as employers try to mitigate the “risks” of remote workers.
Public authorities and agencies are mobilising quickly to put new e-systems in place to keep people safe. But this increased pace of digital transformation of the public sector is blurring the boundaries, responsibilities and power dynamics between public and private actors.
While our economies have plummeted, the stocks of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook, who own of much of the technology we use, rose 37% in the first seven months of 2020 alone.
These digital giants now hold an unprecedented level of power and influence over our governments - and our lives.
of the Big-Data Market
billion gigabytes of global health-data
much of it owned and governed by private corporations
rise in share price
for US Digital Giants during pandemic
Collective Data Rights and the Datafied State
Data is now one of the world's most valuable resources, yet few governments have developed policies or institutions to ensure data can be utilised for public good. Furthermore, unlike natural resources, data is generated by the collective work of users and workers who have handed over the rights this resource without adequate compensation.
This data only has value in its aggregated form, giving it the property of a natural monopoly with all the associated economic, social and political problems that such monopolies bring. In fact many forms of data should be seen as a public good and collective resource of the community that created it - much like mineral resources are the collective resources of the nation whose land it lies under.
Many private companies - such as the digital giants - now hold monopolies on the data governments need to operate critical public services, and many governments are handing over the rights to these data to companies without understanding its value.
Many forms of data should be seen as a public good
Google Maps and Uber hold essential data on city traffic flows, genome mapping companies are collecting massive databases on DNA sequencing required to develop future medicines and Facebook can influence election results with essentially no regulatory oversight.
Data can be a powerful tool for improving public services and outcomes for workers and our communities. Yet rights to our collective data and governance rules regarding its use and abuse are poorly developed across the world. This is not coincidental - it is the result of heavy industry lobbying.
Unions must quickly build our capacity to challenge this power by arguing for stronger protections and collective data rights if we are to shape the digital transformation which the pandemic has already sped up.
Rosa Pavanelli Public Services International
Increasing precarious work is usually the result of corporations flouting labour rules rather than new technological development.
This is not the first time that workers and unions have had to grapple with the rapid introduction of new technology.
We know that when workers are not involved in the transformation, this leads to:
Cost cutting and job losses
Less responsive and accessible public services
More precarious and informal work and de-unionisation
Facilitating privatisation and create dependency of public institutions on private digital technology providers
Increased surveillance and control of workers in the workplace and work intensification leading to health and safety risks
PSI's engagement on digitalisation is centered on presenting an alternative to this approach, where digital change serves the public interest.
We avoid arguing about the technologies, instead analysing whose interests are currently being served and how to reshape digital transformations in ways which benefit workers and society.
This requires demanding that unions are involved in all digital transformation be it at national, regional, local or sectoral level. And it requires making sure our governments put the long-term interests of their people above a blind faith in the miracles of digital technology.
The digital transformation will demand much of us as public services unions.
We too must have the foresight and courage to change.
It's time to shape our own digital future, based on public services which are digitally democratic, inclusive and of high quality for all.