More than 100 participants from over 60 affiliated national unions in 40 countries gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, from 26-27 October for the IndustriALL Global Union World Conference on “Industry 4.0: Implications for trade unions and sustainable industrial policy”.

The conference heard from a broad section of IndustriALL affiliates on how Industry 4.0 and digitalization is impacting affiliates in different countries and sectors, and set an action plan to tackle the challenges ahead.

“Industrial change is not new but the pace of change with Industry 4.0 is unprecedented,” said IndustriALL general secretary, Valter Sanches, in his opening remarks. “Our sectors are going to change, and we are going to have to adjust.”

The future of production and work and the impact of Industry 4.0 on society at large were of key discussion at the conference.

“It cannot be left to the most wealthy to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0,” said Brian Kohler, director for health, safety and sustainability at IndustriALL. “The driving force behind Industry 4.0 is cutting costs and that means jobs will be at risk. If we don’t have a seat the table, we will be on the menu,” said Kohler in stressing the need for trade unions to be involved in decision-making for setting sustainable industrial policy.

“Even the most exploited worker cannot compete with a robot,” warned Kohler, adding that women are particularly vulnerable because many female-dominated jobs are precarious and low paid.

Francisco Betti from the World Economic Forum said the 850 million jobs in production worldwide need to be safeguarded. He added that most companies are failing to successfully implement digitalization because workers are not involved at the early stages.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation highlighted the need for solidarity across industrial sectors in the face of Industry 4.0. She also called for a Just Transition for workers, saying companies need to be held accountable for workers and their impacts on society at large. “Businesses need a social licence to operate – to ensure they pay tax, provide secure employment and contribute to social protection systems.”

The conference included a key-note speech from Deborah Greenfield, deputy director-general of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “Optimism lies in our ability to develop policies for the future of work,” she argued. She outlined positive developments in recent decades such as a drop in the extreme poverty rate, increased women in the workforce and improved ratification of ILO conventions. However, she underlined that gains in productivity are going into profits and short-term investments (i.e. speculation) that neither benefit workers nor increase wages.

Industry 4.0 needs Labour 4.0 said Wolfgang Lemb, from German affiliate, IG Metall, with a right of access to education and life-long learning. Only a qualified workforce will be able to react to changing markets, said Lemb. He also said increasing union membership was key to meeting the challenges of the future.

At the end of two days of informed discussion, participants approved IndustriALL’s action plan, which calls for “a future of work that embraces the positive impacts that Industry 4.0 may bring for all of society while making sure that workers aren’t left to pay the social debts of companies, with governments unwilling to make this transition socially responsible.”

Included in the plans are:

  1. Awareness raising and capacity building for affiliates to promote IndustriALL’s sustainable industrial policy objectives
  2. Organizing young workers, women and precarious workers
  3. Ensuring Global Framework Agreements address the opportunities and challenges of Industry 4.0
  4. Formulating and implementing a Just Transition programme to be part of any discussions with governments and companies
  5. Workers’ rights to information and consultation, training, and defined levels of privacy at work and home
  6. A gender perspective on the development of policies on Industry 4.0
  7. To insist on a voice for workers in global, regional, national and company level discussions on Industry 4.

Read the full Action Plan here.