Accueil » 75-4 ( 2020) » Digitalization and Regulation of Work and Employment: Introduction

Digitalization and Regulation of Work and Employment: Introduction

Christian Lévesque, Peter Fairbrother et Nicolas Roby

Abstract

This thematic issue is an effort to understand how digitalization is disrupting and reordering the regulation of work and employment. It also examines how these concerns may lead to organizational and institutional experimentation. The current phase of digitalization is driven by complex and diversified interconnections between data, objects, and platforms, making for clustered disruption and a sometimes diffuse sense of change. It is characterized by the emergence of new, advanced manufacturing technologies, machine-learning algorithms, ubi-quitous devices, and data-driven applications and services. Among other things, these innovations include advanced robotics and 4.0 manufacturing systems, cloud computing and ‘as a service’ (aaS) applications, the Internet of Things, smarter supervisory control and data acquisition systems, advanced data discovery and business intelligence (BI), global supply chain management platforms and software solutions, additive and rapid prototyping technologies (3D printing), and intermediation platforms. Such developments suggest a need to reconsider how business models are currently constituted. Alongside the emergence of the above-mentioned technologies, new business models are in development (Briken et al., 2017; Degryse, 2016; Olleros and Zhegu, 2016), and some of them are underpinning the rise of ‘network markets’ and the platform economy. One important characteristic of the new business models is their capacity to capture economic rents through the marketization of previously under- or unexploited resources. By converting our daily lives into usable data, interconnected devices, machine-learning algorithms and online applications amplify the potential for creating and harnessing new sources of value. In the new models, digitalized data become a strategic resource, and the consumer, a producer of digital commodities. There is much discussion and debate in academic and public circles about the disruptive impacts of the current phase of digitalization. Warhurst and Hunt (2019: 1) list three aspects of digitalization that changes work and hence labour markets: digitally-enabled machines with artificial intelligence (AI); digitalization of processes that offer enhanced possibilities for processing, storage and communication of information; and use of digital networks to coordinate economic transactions through platform-based algorithms. These changes are expected to flow through labour markets and practices in three ways. The first way concerns the circumstances in which technological innovation, in the form of automation, machine work and artificial intelligence systems, may or does shape work (West 2018; Berg et al., 2018). More specifically, it is argued that digital technologies are being used deliberately and instrumentally to shape work and employment relations; for example, via online platforms (Frey and Osborne, 2017). Second, the increase in jobs in the service and information sectors has been accelerated by digitalization, as has been the decline in jobs in the production and sourcing of material goods (OECD, 2019a and 2019b). Third, with fewer employment contracts providing a ‘standard employment relationship,’ there has been a consequent proliferation of precarious forms of employment (Standing, 2014). As noted, whatever the specific experience one has with precarious employment, and whatever the current circumstances, these new developments bring an element of insecurity with significant health risks (e.g., Lewchuk, 2017). They are broad in their effects and have implications not only for tasks in the work environment itself but also for how people are employed and where they are employed. Although, to date, these developments do not seem to have increased joblessness, they may be associated with an increase in underemployment (e.g., for the U.S., see Atkinson and Wu, 2017). There is general agreement that institutions are out of sync with the realities of contemporary labour markets. Policy makers are failing to meet the challenges of the more profound transformations associated with the rise of the digital economy. The requisite institutional frameworks lack the capacity to regulate and …