Beware, technology may erode labour rights

Wednesday March 18 2020

There is a global conversation on how robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will shape how work is done. While to some that may seem futuristic, advancements on technology and the workplace should have all stakeholders in the labour industry concerned.

It is, perhaps, important to first look at mainstream technologies and interrogate how they affect labour rights.


Workers have progressively come to accept the inclusion of technology in the workplace. Technologies such as biometric attendance registers, geo-fencing of work zones, communication through chat groups and computerisation of processes and systems have simplified the way we work while, in the same breath, increasing efficiency, accountability and productivity.

Through use of technology, employers are allowing their employees to work from anywhere as long as they deliver on the agreed output. Technology is now, more than ever, challenging the traditional definition of the workplace.

On the flip side, it has also led to a slow but sure reduction of the human interface in the workplace, creating redundancies, as companies continually seek to improve their bottom line.

In the banking industry, for instance, automated teller machines (ATMs) not only dispense cash, but also receive deposits while some bank transfers and loan applications can now be done through mobile telephony platforms.

The email service has also revolutionised the way we work. It is, perhaps, the most common technological innovation in the workplace. However, it is also the most commonly misused as some employers expect workers to access and action emails even after normal or agreed working hours. This infringement has led some countries to ban access to company email servers after working hours.


Recently, a government official was in the news for declaring that he would supervise his juniors through WhatsApp. I wonder whether all his juniors have smartphones and run the application. Would any of them be victimised for not having a smartphone or subscribing to WhatsApp?

As workers seek to fulfil their roles, they are increasingly being compelled to receive, send or even action emails and messages through various devices after working hours, which affects their work-life balance and general quality of life. While some may, of their own volition, use their personal social media accounts to promote their employer’s brands and products, they should not be compelled or coerced to market their employers’ agendas via social media platforms without commensurate compensation or recognition.

Technology needs to move in tandem with workers’ rights to tame its egregious overreach into their constitutional rights. Labour activism in Kenya has an important role in ensuring balance between the gains made through the adoption of technology in the workplace vis-à-vis workers’ rights.

The effects of technology on labour rights should be a permanent negotiable item in all collective bargain initiatives. The Industrial Court should be invited to pronounce themselves on the issue, just as policymakers in government and beyond need to put it on their agendas.

Mr Jumba, a lawyer, is a former public prosecutor at NSSF. [email protected]