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The world of work and the manner in which society interacts has and will continue to transform due to innovation. To name but a few developments in the field of medicine; the first industrial revolution brought sterilization, the second introduced electric shock therapy and the third introduced mobile healthcare. Today we are faced with the fourth industrial revolution (hereinafter referred to as 4thIR) which predicts the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in almost every field of medicine. The 4thIR has and will continue to introduce incredible technological advancements in all fields of work. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the possible impact of the 4thIR on the employment relationship and new and/or adaptive skills requirements. This will be considered against the backdrop of prior industrial revolutions and the effect that they have had on the world of work.

Industrial Revolutions & The changed reality of the world of work

An industrial revolution denotes the process of change and development in societal structures and economic systems. There have been three industrial revolutions in the past. The first showed the change from hand production to mechanical production and the use of water and steam. The second included the introduction of electricity and the assembly line which resulted in mass production. The third is known as the digital revolution which introduced the internet and computerization. These revolutions have had an impact on the changed reality of work.

In the industrial era, according to the Fordist model, employees worked at a factory as a collective with homogeneous interests. In the post-industrial era this is no longer the case. New forms of work have emerged and the factory is no longer the primary location for work as manufacturing has become a smaller part of the economy. In the industrial era employment was stable and continuous as the employee was in undetermined indefinite employment. There has been an increase in non-standard ‘atypical’ employment instead of full time employment such as part-time jobs, fixed-term contracts, casual work and temporary employment. In the industrial era subordination and the employers’ control of the employee was easily and clearly established. Today we have a large number of home-workers which makes it difficult to determine if an employer has control over an employee. This shows that the world of work is being shaped and developed in terms of social and economic realities throughout time.

Today we are faced with the 4thIR which builds on the digital revolution. It includes new forms and uses of technology which are being introduced into our society. Considering the fact that an industrial revolution has an impact on the context of work the question is then what possible impact could the fourth industrial revolution have on the employment relationship.

Possible impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the employment relationship

The employment relationship & Legislative protection

An employment relationship is one between an employer and an employee where the employee performs work for the employer for pay. It is through this relationship that employees and employers obtain reciprocal rights and obligations. The existence of an employment relationship is required for an employee to be legislatively protected. Protection in terms of labour laws are only afforded to those who fall within the definition of an ‘employee’. With the emergence of new forms of work, it is sometimes difficult to determine if the worker is an employee (and thus protected) or an independent contractor (and thus excluded from protection). Benjamin states that globalization and technological advances have located workers in a grey area between self-employment and employment. The Labour Relations Act has been amended in order to protect non-standard employees and has included a rebuttable presumption of employment. However, although legislative protection may be afforded, the circumstances of the employment may result in difficulty of enforcement of legislative rights.

New forms of employment

Weiss argues that, due to technological changes, new forms of employment have emerged and there are less traditional forms of employment. It is expected that the 4thIR will increase new forms of employment by creating jobs that do not yet exist and adapt jobs that do. The 4thIR is expected to increase worker participation in the ‘gig’ economy where services are provided on a job-to-job basis. It will also increase the amount of ‘atypical’ employment. Take for example the use of AI nursing assistants. They can monitor patients, provide wellness checks and provide quick medical answers. Should the technology advance it could reduce the need for full-time nurses and they may only be required to work on a job-to-job or temporary basis to complete tasks that require human characteristics. If there is a shortage of work it is possible that the nurse will enter into flexible working arrangements by doing freelancing for different hospitals. This could make trade union organization and collective bargaining difficult and leave the nurse in a vulnerable position without legislative protection

Place of business a virtual reality & trade unions

Due to technological changes the place of work is often turned into a virtual reality. Such as the creation of virtual worlds where business hold meetings with its workers through virtual reality (VR) devices. This makes it challenging to determine who the employer and employee is in some cases. Furthermore, it causes difficulties for trade union organization as there is no workplace where employees operate and where trade unions can recruit members. Trade unions are still focused on traditional employment and find it difficult to adapt their bargaining strategies to new forms of work that do not fit into the profile of traditional employment. Those employees who are engaged in traditional forms of employment have the ability to self-regulate notwithstanding any decline in trade-union membership. Those engaged in new forms of work find it more difficult to self-regulate.


The 4thIR is likely to increase globalization. Globalization is a system of business arrangements that move goods, services and information across international borders. Technology makes such movements possible through technological communications, transportation and manufacturing techniques. Employers can choose to use workers in the country where they are situated or in another country with little labour protection by making use of off-shore workers or outsourcing jobs to foreign contractors and suppliers. It is difficult to identify the employer as they are in uncertain locations on a global production chain. Labour laws and trade unions function on a local and not an international level which means that a large number of workers are not protected by labour laws.

‘Casualization’ and ‘externalization’

It is important to note that since the post-apartheid era the labour market has been marked by both ‘casualization’ and ‘externalization’ which decreases the amount of workers protection. ‘Casualization’ is where standard employment is replaced by part-time and/or temporary employment in order to deprive workers of legislative rights. ‘Externalization’ refers to the process of economic restructuring in terms of which employment is regulated by a commercial contract rather than a contract of employment in order to avoid legislation and reduce employment. Lack of protection could be amplified by the 4thIR as employers seek to keep up with technological and global demands and make profits by reducing costs and utilizing an external workforce. The lack of protection could result in a decrease of productivity, lack of training, distorting competition and a lack of security of employment.

Possible impact on new and adaptive skills requirements

The need for new and or adaptive skills development and training

Labour law is not only law on the employment relationship but should also include law on the creation of job opportunities. The 4thIR will have the effect that some jobs and skills become obsolete while others will require workers to adapt their skills in existing jobs to keep up with technological change and some jobs will require new skills. Jobs that are most vulnerable are those that require repetitive tasks and physical work that can easily be replaced by automated systems and machines. Take for example the prospect of autonomous transport. A taxi-drivers driving skill will become redundant and he would have to be re-skilled into a different transport related role. For example, he may need to be trained in assisting passengers, to ensure efficient service and to explain the system to passengers and maintain the vehicle.

The 4thIR has an impact on what skills will be required for a job and will be constantly subject to change. For example, as new technologies emerge, some skills that have been studied in a medical or technical degree will become unnecessary by the time that the student enters the workforce. The skills required for the 4thIR must be kept in mind when providing training and developing skills. Where the employee’s skills are improved his success in a new labour market will be improved.

An example: The use of AI in medicine

Artificial intelligence can collect and organize complex electronic data from patient’s medical history, tests and daily life. It can provide detailed and complete images that otherwise could not have been seen by the human eye (such as small changes in breast tissue on mammograms) and analysis them more quickly and efficiently than a doctor. In this form AI does not replace doctors. The required skill for a doctor will no longer be placed on collecting and analyzing data because this can be done better and faster by AI. Instead, skills that are important will be those that humans can do better than AI. According to Dr. Payne doctors should then be trained to be interpreters and counselors. Furthermore, doctors should be trained in being able to work together with the AI systems and know how it works so that they have the skill to use AI efficiently.


Labour legislation and skill development strategies must adapt not only to the world of work created by previous industrial revolutions but also the new world of work brought about by the 4thIR. Workers must be legislatively protected in new and/or adaptive forms of work that do not fit into the box of traditional employment. Trade unions must move away from bargaining strategies that are focused on traditional employment and must adapt their strategies to new forms of work. Current labour legislation on training and skills development must make provision for and continually adapt to new types of skills that may be required. Skills that are attained and required at school level, tertiary level and work level must be continuously updated to ensure that workers and future workers have the skills to work efficiently for the types of jobs in the 4thIR.


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