“But fast-forward to a more up-to-date workplace and the clerk has disappeared; in her or his place is a QR (“quick response code”) reader where customers swipe their documents and there is no queue. In the same way, customers can check out their purchases in supermarkets and pay by card without the help of staff (though under close electronic surveillance), check in their own luggage at airports or perform a wide range of formerly labour-intensive transactions without human intervention.
If this is today, tomorrow can bring even greater changes. Already there is much talk of the “jobless workplace” or “work without workers”, presaged by computers doing the work of office workers (or check-out clerks), robots doing the jobs of car workers or trains that drive themselves. And robots are no longer limited to doing simple or ‘unskilled’ tasks; increasingly complex functions can be performed by computers that can ‘think’ – that is, programme themselves automatically with data collected from their operation”.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Editorial by Darcy du Toit in IR Network published by LexisNexis [subscription required]
Where is it all heading? Much of the necessary legal development will take place outside the arena of labour law, though principles developed elsewhere – for example, relating to liability for damage caused by robots – may well be applicable in labour disputes also. Also, the process will not be uniform. Like every other walk of life, the world of work is characterised by vast and growing disparities. While some workplaces advance into the 21st century, others lack the capital investment required for this and continue to grapple with the employment relations, and attendant legal questions, that have been familiar since the days of the Industrial Court.
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This mode of production, he concludes, “defines the route beyond the market system. It will need the state to create the framework – just as it created the framework for factory labour, sound currencies and free trade in the early 19th century. The post capitalist sector is likely to coexist with the market sector for decades, but major change is happening.” (Extracts from The Guardian, 17 July 2015)
The point here is not the extent to which this “major change” may take root in different sectors. The point is rather that it is “happening”. In the form of Uber and numerous similar operations (including two South African platforms marketing the services of domestic workers), such forms of work are with us and, to the extent that they succeed, are likely to expand. This is especially probable in a country with huge unemployment, also among university graduates.
It means that, alongside traditional employment disputes arising in traditional workplaces and new types of disputes in state-of-the-art workplaces, we may see more disputes related to work and service delivery that does not involve employment. Labour law practitioners will be well-advised to broaden their horizons to encompass this new dimension of the world of work.