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‘End of labour’ thesis tested

- Edward Webster and Lynford Dor

There is a widespread view that labour as a counter-hegemonic force has come to an end.

We saw this in the notion of the network society, then the notion of the global precariat, and now the idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

There is a lot going for these arguments; there is no question that there has been a decline of union membership and density in the Global North. For example, in liberal market economies such as Australia union membership has declined from 50% to 15%, and in the United States from 20% to 11%. 

In coordinated market economies such as Germany it has declined from 35% to 18%. Even a social democratic country such as Sweden has lost union members, from 78% to 68% (Visser, 2019:15).

But the problem with the pessimistic “end of labour thesis” is that it presents workers as victims. The result is that labour can only act defensively — fight militantly to defend a demand, even when it is unrealistic. The result is that labour is seen as an actor without agency that cannot think of alternatives or imagine a future towards which labour can work. We need to rethink the way we view digitalisation and reject a preconceived notion about the development of globalisation.

We identify examples where workers on the margins are beginning to cross the divide between the protected and the unprotected, the established workers and those marginalised by liberalisation. The focus of these studies has been on the strategic choice of workers in responding to new challenges and changing contexts. 

We demonstrate in these studies that workers’ ability to win demands through strikes has been constrained by increased competition between workers globally, by intensified managerial control at workplace level deepened by digitalisation and by unfriendly strike regulations. 

However, in addition to structural power we identify how workers can mobilise other sources of power. “Self-employed workers” with low structural power tend to create new forms of associational power, which diverge from traditional trade unions. What is clear is Southern workers are developing innovative responses to the challenge of an increasingly insecure world. 

Instead of the bright new world painted by the global tech companies, what is emerging is a return to the working conditions of the nineteenth century. In many ways digitalisation, and what we call algorithmic management, is a return to Frederick Taylor’s ideas of scientific management. 

Management could strengthen its hand in the struggle to speed up production, Taylor wrote at the beginning of the last century, if “managers assume … the burden of gathering all of the traditional knowledge which had been possessed by the workmen and then classifying, tabulating and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws and formulae” (Braverman, 1974: 12). 

A second principle was that “the work of every workman is fully planned out by the management … and each man received in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish…” (Braverman, 1974: 118). 

In other words, management must use its monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution. Indeed, the current world of work could be described as a form of “digital Taylorism”.

As Kamath and Sarkar (2020) argue in their problematisation of algorithm-based decision making embedded in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), “standardisation and modularisation of tasks have made wide inroads in workers’ lives, resulting in a replication of Taylorist mass-production techniques”. They point out that the algorithmic nature of ERP technology has made work processes far more standardised and routinised, “making the modern skilled worker as replaceable as Braverman’s factory worker” (Kamath and Sarkar, 2020: 116). 

However, a clear difference from the Fordist assembly line is that workers in the digital age are often atomised into micro or individual workplaces and are not easily able to combine in large numbers to build worker power and confront employers. This points to the need to target state and other national institutions which have the power to deliver services such as pensions, unemployment benefits, and other forms of social protection.

Furthermore, the entry of China and former Soviet countries into the global labour force and the economic liberalisation associated with globalisation has resulted in labour and hence capital goods being cheap to produce in emerging Asian economies (Milanovic, 2016:106). 

Consequently, although globalisation leads to income gains for the global top income earners and the middle class in emerging Asian economies, this comes at the expense of the working class of the Global North and the poor globally, with those in the lower percentiles of global income distributions experiencing minimal changes in their real income (Milanovic, 2016: 5). 

The implications of Milanovic’s research is large parts of the Global South are excluded from the gains of globalisation and the new technologies; and, although the members of the working class of the Global North are poorer, they are still wealthier than the poor in the Global South.

While the gap “between rich and poor nations, powerful and powerless nations … caused by colonisation and imperialism is now slightly less substantial, a large citizen premium still exists with a lot of our income [depending] on the accident of birth” (Milanovic, 2016: 139). 

Not only is the number of hours worked by labourers greater in the poorer countries, but the real wage rates for the same occupations that involve the same amount of effort are also lower in the Global South (Milanovic, 2016: 140). This on-going exploitation of Southern labour, colonialism’s legacy of global inequality, is what we mean by “working in the shadow of the digital age”. 

In recent times we have seen the emergence of a new business model among the global IT giants, such as Apple and Amazon, that successfully evade nation state corporate governance codes, laws and policies (like anti-trust and competition policy). Control is exercised by a small, mathematically proficient elite dominating decision making and policy by owning and controlling the “algorithm”. 

In the process, even greater (income and wealth) inequalities are created and entrenched. This unprecedented concentration of wealth and power is generating resistance to the precarious employment conditions in these giant tech companies, leading to increasing attempts to regulate the sector; this resistance is coming chiefly from global unions and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in combination with local worker organisations. 

This points to the importance of bolstering global institutions such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Global Unions, which are supporting the organisation of precarious workers. The ILO is the only tripartite United Nations (UN) agency that incorporates worker, trade union and employer representatives. This is crucial, since it allows nation states to adopt empowering legislation. 

It also points to the importance of pressurising particularly weak nation states to adopt worker rights in a variety of areas including in laws governing migrants, social protection, labour, local government, small business and other arenas impacting on workers’ lives. If labour is to revitalise its role in relation to global capital, it needs to organise at different levels: global, nation state and local. 

This will involve new and experimental ways of organising and implementing worker rights. Crucially, nation states need to strengthen inspectorates to monitor state institutions in their delivery of worker benefits and services. Laws and regulations are useless without successful delivery, an area which worker organisations must oversee. 


Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Kamath, R. and Sarkar, E. (2020) “The Engineer … No Longer a Person but a Number on an Excel Sheet: Enterprise Resource Planning and Commoditisation of Labour”, Global Labour Journal, 11(2): 103–17.

Milanovic, B. (2016) Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Visser, J. (2019) “Can Unions Revitalise Themselves?”, International Journal of Labour Research, 9(1–2): 17–48.

Recasting Workers’ Power; Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age is written by Edward Webster, from the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, with Lynford Dor, KU Leuven and University of Johannesburg, and is published by Wits University Press.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.