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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Presentation by Charley Lewis, COSATU IT Unit, to the LINK Centre Conference on ICT and Development

26 July 2000, Wits University

Why should Unions bother with E-commerce?

Daily the hype around the issue of electronic commerce grows. News of the allegedly emerging Information Society, of the shift towards a knowledge economy, of successes (and failures) of dotCom companies, abounds.

In response to the rapid spread of information and communications technologies, business management either dismisses organised labour as irrelevant or is actively hostile towards our right to be involved.

The first point which I would like to stress is that is essential for both business and government to recognise the key role that unions have to play as legitimate stakeholders in this area. It is our members who are the call centre agents or the java programmers whose labour power drives the information revolution. It is also our members who are the shop assistants and cashiers whose jobs are being changed forever by the e-commerce revolution.

But donít expect our interests and viewpoints to coincide with yours. Unlike business, our core function is not to make profits, but to advance the needs and protect the rights of our members, to deal with wages and working conditions, jobs, benefits, skills. Our role is different from that of government or business, but you have to recognise that it is legitimate.

This means both that our positions need to be accommodated and that our capacity and our involvement must be actively built and sought by management.

Secondly, it is essential that unions too need to recognise and engage with the realities of the emerging e-commerce information economy. Unions can either make a last stand, spanners raised, as the digital avalanche engulfs us - or we can engage actively, strategically, politically and organisationally with the unfolding changes.

In fact unions and their structures, both in South Africa and internationally, are already active in this regard. Witness the online rights campaign of Union Network International (UNI - see www.union-network.org)and the role played by the ICFTU (see www.icftu.org). COSATU too, through its Information Technology Unit, has been part of the ICT Foresight Project, the SA IT Industry Strategy (see www.saitis.co.za), and the Department of Communicationsí Electronic Commerce policy process (see www.ecomm-debate.co.za/docs/discuss-contents.html).

Issues of Importance to Labour

What issues then does organised labour see as the key ones affecting its constituency? How do unions see the impacts of e-commerce on their membership? What sorts of positions have been put forward by union structures, both here and abroad?

Job Losses and Job Creation

The evidence available suggests that overall e-commerce will result in job losses through the process often described as "creative destruction". In this process, new technologies take away jobs in traditional sectors of the economy, while creating jobs in new economic sectors. The impact is likely to affect process intermediaries such as clerks, salespeople etc the most and to impact the industrial sectors of the economy the hardest.

In addition, new jobs tend to be created only after some time. Worse more old jobs are usually lost than new ones created.

Given these trends, it is essential that unions respond both defensively with regard to legacy jobs and proactively with regard to future employment trends. This should include measures to:

  • ensure adequate protection of existing jobs;
  • stimulate the creation of new jobs;
  • facilitate (through retraining, redeployment plans etc) the transition of workers to new jobs;
  • ensure unions are fully consulted in all such negotiations.

Skills Development

E-commerce forms a major component of the new, high-skill information economy. One of the structural features of this new economy is the "skills gap" - the coexistence of high numbers of unemployed workers with very limited sets of skills, together with many persistent vacancies at the upper end of the skills spectrum.

For a variety of historical reasons, most COSATU members (indeed most South Africans) lack the necessary skills for employment in these new economic sectors. We should therefore ensure that:

  • resources must be committed on a major scale to the systematic skills upgrading of the workforce;
  • the education system must create the skills underpinnings (such as computer literacy, mathematics skills etc) necessary to prepare school leavers to participate in the information revolution.

Labour Standards

E-commerce makes it easier for employers to outsource or casualise their operations. This leads to a shrinking core of permanent, quality jobs and to the creation of modes of employment that are often poorly paid and without proper benefits or protections - marginalised, contingent and insecure.

Unions therefore need to:

  • call for measures to prevent the creation of such a two-tier labour market;
  • examine what protections the LRA and BCEA afford to such contingent workers (including tele-workers, tele-commuters and home-workers), and call for the necessary amendments;
  • call for the inclusion of the Social Clause into international e-commerce agreements so as to prevent companies moving their operations offshore to countries without adequate labour standards.


Business (supported by the OECD) has called for self-regulation within e-commerce. This would imply that business would both set and police the rules, without "interference" from government, labour and civil society.

Unions should therefore:

  • oppose self-regulation, which is tantamount to asking the poacher to play gamekeeper;
  • call for appropriate e-commerce regulatory measures to protect workers and consumers;
  • demand structures that are democratic, accountable and transparent to enforce such regulation.


On the one hand there is considerable danger that e-commerce will simply add a digital divide to the existing social deficit in our society. On the other, access to information and communications technology infrastructure holds benefits useful to unions.

We should therefore:

  • call for access to information and communications technology infrastructure to be extended widely, especially targeting marginalised communities such as workers and the rural poor (possibly through the continued roll-out of tele-centres / multi-purpose community centres);
  • continue to support the Online Rights for Shop Stewards campaign, demanding the right of access to employer infrastructure to communicate with, organise and service our members (in accordance with the recent COSATU Special Congress Resolution).


Access to the information society remains strongly skewed in relation to gender, race and disability.

We should therefore call for:

  • active measures to promote equity and redress of historical imbalances at all levels, from the workplace to the whole of society.


The OECD strongly supports the position that e-commerce transactions should remain untaxed. Through the WTO a moratorium on such taxation exists, which legislation currently before the US Senate seeks to reinforce.

We should therefore:

  • reject the current moratorium on e-commerce taxation;
  • call for measures to ensure that e-commerce transactions do not undermine the national tax base or offer loopholes for companies to avoid paying tax;
  • demand an international tax regime that does not undermine the right of nations to levy taxes, including on e-commerce transactions;
  • support the imposition of a Tobin tax to deter currency speculation taking place through electronic financial transactions;
  • examine of the feasibility of measures such as a "bit tax" or TEAL (total economic activity levy) as alternative ways to raise revenue.

Intellectual Property Rights

There is strong pressure from business and the OECD to strengthen intellectual property rights in favour of companies and the developed world.

COSATU should therefore make the following calls:

  • IPR rules must not undermine the principle of fair use (for education, research, study etc) or undermine reverse engineering of technologies;
  • IPR rules must provide adequate protection for developing countries such as SA, support the transfer of technologies and protect their cultural and bio-diversity heritage.

Consumer Protection

We need to ensure that our members enjoy proper protections under an information economy both as citizens and as workers.

We therefore need to call for the following measures:

  • protection of citizens against inappropriate and offensive content, including hate speech and child pornography;
  • enforceable safeguards to protect and guarantee the privacy of citizens and employees, including against disclosure or commercial exploitation of personal information (including purchasing patterns) and against electronic surveillance in the workplace;
  • legal safeguards for citizens in relation to electronic contracts, digital signatures etc that are at least as effective as current common law / legal safeguards.


It is imperative that unions develop a strategic and proactive approach around the transition to a new information economy. Some of the interventions suggested might form part of such an approach.

But further research is necessary, together with the development of new collective bargaining, organising, education and membership service strategies appropriate to the changing conditions of the information economy.

What I have attempted to show in the foregoing presentation is that trade unions in South Africa are beginning to engage with the information economy, even in its most hyped avatar, e-commerce. We have begun to grapple with the impacts of the digital age upon our members, their structures, their lives and livelihoods. And we have begun to develop policy responses and interactions on a variety of fronts.

I end where I began: by emphasising the continuing role and relevance of trade unions in the information era, and stressing how important it is that they be drawn into its processes and structures. We need to be consulted, negotiated with and accorded the role we have earned, namely to represent the interests of our members, to raise their fears and hopes, to table their concerns and demands.

An online injury to one is an online injury to all!

Thank you.

Further Information

Unions internationally have begun to develop policy responses and interventions relating to e-commerce. Although not much of this is available online, there are some useful documents:

  1. The Question Marks: Privacy, Regulation and Jobs - Marc Belanger, PSI
  2. Electronic Commerce: Developments and Challenges - Roland Schneider, TUAC
  3. Submission by the OECD Committee for Consumer Policy to the Ottawa OECD E-commerce Conference
  4. Notes from OECD E-commerce Conference in Ottawa - James Love, CPT
  5. Speech - Philip Jennings, FIET General Secretary, 12 October 1999