Labour and Technology

On the first Friday of October the Institute of Labour Studies, Ljubljana in collaboration with Zavod Bunker, RLS Southeast Europe and transform! europe organized a conference on the topic of the relation between labour and technology in the 21st century.

The question seemed all the more pressing due to several reasons. The widespread fear of jobs lost to automation in the coming decades, if not years, that has reappeared in public debates and in the media, and is often used as an argument for the inevitability of downsizing and various assaults on the conditions of labour being one of them.

This was precisely the theme of the first panel hosted in the auditorium of Ljubljana’s Stara mestna elektrarna, Ljubljana’s first powerplant, now mostly a performance and conference venue. The panel hosted Tomislav Medak, a Croat theorist, researcher and a widely known collaborator of progressive agendas in the region, and Nadia Garbellini and Matteo Gaddi from the Italian association Punto Rosso, a member of the transform! europe network. Medak gave us a general historical perspective and outline of the problems wrought by the process of supplanting living labour with machines. His account, although fairly sceptical of any apocalyptic predictions in regards to the amount of job losses (following a McKinsey report that emphasized an irreversible loss of just 5% of current jobs due to automation, advocated for a more thoughtful approach to the acceptance of new technologies and an increase in public scrutiny and regulation. What was also of particular interest in Medak’s presentation was the fact that he emphasised the role new technologies play in sophisticated forms of scientific management that wrestle control of the work process from the workers to an even wider extent.

This was also an important topic for Gaddi and Garbellini, who presented us some of the results of the research Punto Rosso has been making on the effects of Industry 4.0 on European production chain. If one was to summarize a key point from the research they have been doing on several Italian companies, then an important point would be that while increased automation, more than implying direct job losses in specific plants, acts through a more complicated mechanism. As a large part of automation happens in logistics, thus optimizing transport throughout the EU and on a wider scale, it becomes far easier for supply chains to shift to a country with conditions more favourable for capitalist exploitation, which functions as a mechanism of disciplining country in fiscal terms and in terms of labour laws, forcing countries towards a race to the bottom.

After a break the second panel hosted ILS members Martin Hergouth and Anže Dolinar talking about problems related to the socialist calculation debate  and the possibilities of planning in the 21st century – the age of information technology.

The last part of the conference was a keynote lecture by the British economist Michael Roberts, who illustrated the problem of technological innovation in the economy, where a contradiction ensues between technological innovation increasing productivity, while on the other hand lowering the input of live labour thus decreasing the amount of value being produced in the end. Roberts spoke to a large audience of predominantly young people.

Overall the conference was one of the few interventions in the topic to gain public notice in Slovenia. What it showed us is the importance of trans-national collaboration in terms of sharing of research, political experience and insights.

Nejc Slukan

Conference Programme:


Matteo Gaddi & Nadia Garbellini – Industry 4.0 and the Impact on Labour: The Italian Case

Tomislav Medak – Disrupting Technological Change

Anže Dolinar – Reconsidering the Market