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RUC Expert Lin Jia on Labor Rights in the Information Age


Professor Lin Jia teaches in Renmin University of China Law School. She also Directs the Labor Law and Social Security Law Institute of Renmin University of China. She is currently thinking on protecting labor rights in the time of advanced technology. Here is a preview of her work:

The information technology revolution has brought about a new leap of productivity, with new industries and business models, such as the digital economy and sharing economy. However, with the increase of productivity, information technology is also raising concerns over the protection of individual’s rights and interests. In the field of labor law, what concerns people the most is whether the widespread use of big data and AI will infringe on labor rights, such as the right to work and the right of privacy. The question of how to balance the development of information technology and labor rights protection calls for consideration and response from a legal perspective.

The question that gets the most attention is whether robots will replace human beings in the future. AI is able to greatly supplement human intelligence and is capable of learning. At present, robots have been applied in large quantities in traditional labor-intensive industries, multiple highly professional areas and the management of public affairs. It has been noted that apart from jobs requiring manual labor; jobs requiring intellectual labor, such as bank clerks, financial analysts, accountants and translators, are also affected. The question is: if jobs are being substituted in large quantities, will that lead to large-scale unemployment? Artificial intelligence is not human intelligence, but it may learn to think just like a human being and may even exceed human intelligence in many aspects. When robots acquire the ability to think and actually engage in laboring, will they become one party in the labor relationship? Therefore, it can be seen that AI has brought about new challenges to labor ethics as well.

Big data technology has made the collection of information simple and fast, which means that the information of laborers is easier to be collected. Whether this risk will lead to the infringement of laborersright of privacy is well worth attention. There has been a dramatic increase of digital platforms as well as the number of laborers dependent on these platforms, such as drivers for ride-hailing, take-away and delivery services. This new business model has eased the pressure of employment by creating new jobs. But is it necessary to define this kind of relationship as labor relationship? How to secure the right to work and welfare for those laborers? The protection of rights and interests of employees who are dependent on the digital platforms deserves attention from the perspective of law.

The labor law must respond to these questions which arise in the Information Age by making necessary adjustments. If the trend of AI replacing human labor is inexorable, more attention should be attached to the protection of labor rights for those whose jobs are replaced by machines. On the one hand, corporations must strictly abide by the dismissal procedure set by the law, pay necessary compensation to the dismissed employees, and reasonably accommodate the employees who cannot be dismissed. On the other hand, corporations and governments should devote more to providing vocational training and promoting career switching in order to help the unemployed landing new jobs. As for whether AI can become a party in the labor relationship, many scholars believe that even though robots can be quite intelligent, they do not have the minds and souls of a human being, which distinguishes them from human beings who possess human intelligence.

Laborers’ right of privacy and personal information serve as an important part of personality rights, which deserve protection by law. Employers shall not infringe on employees’ right of privacy out of convenience in management. They can only collect employees’ information for legitimate reasons and are obliged to keep it confidential. In addition, the collection of the employees’ personal information should follow the principle of informed consent, and the collection and the usage of sensitive information should be subject to strict limitation rules.

Compared with traditional labor relationship, employment based on digital platforms possesses several distinct characteristics. The most important method of identifying the existence of a traditional labor relationship is based on affiliation, i.e. to determine whether the employee is affiliated with the employer personally, economically or organizationally. However, on digital platforms, the existence of affiliation is often unclear, which makes it hard to use the traditional method to identify. In order to tackle new challenges brought about by technological advancement, it is suggested that lawmakers should not confine themselves to the traditional method of identifying labor relationship. Instead, they should pass laws and regulations specifically applying to employment on digital platforms. Regulatory systems such as maximum working hour, minimum wage, necessary safety protection measures, and collective organization of labors based on digital platforms, can promote the development of new economy and business models. At the same time, these can better protect labors’ rights and interests and minimize the risks of infringement. 

(Editor: ZHENG Di, LIU Chen, ZHANG Xiaochen)