The Global Commission on the Future of Work, set up in 2017 by the Director – General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has now published its report on the Future of Work.
The Commission’s hope is that this report will inspire further discussions, given the urgency of the changes impacting work across the world. We must hope it inspires a lot more than discussions.
There is a limit what the ILO, or any such organisation, can do about the immensity of the changes which are already taking place, with much more to come, but at least it highlights the alarming big picture.
Technological advances are a major threat to traditional work, and those who lose jobs may be least equipped to take new work opportunities that innovation offers. Nobody needs telling this, as the impact of industries being lost still affects many communities around the world.
The report also identifies demographic change as a pressure, with expanding youth populations in some parts of the world who would become very frustrated by lack of meaningful work. Social unrest is a huge risk. Education has been improving across so many developing countries, though many have still a long way to go, but where does that leave young people if jobs do not exist or they have not had education that suits the new world of work?
Some of the report reads as a seemingly impossible wish list, such as aspirations for a Universal Labour Guarantee, greater autonomy for workers over their working time, and widespread rights to collective representation at work. There are important observations on the need to protect humans from explorative use of technology and data. The EU’s GDPR is badly needed in some workable form in many developing countries, which will be a data “Wild West “ in coming years as the data of a growing middle class becomes a fresh target for multinationals to harvest.
The ILO has limited ability to cover such a huge and serious issue for humanity, but at least it is telling the story and providing timely focus on what is needed from governments, employers and unions.
The combination of climate change, technological job displacement, sea level rise, reduced globalisation, conflicts and increase of young people needing work in vulnerable countries, will all lead to a massive increase in migration for survival. Yet the world is building more walls and increasingly sophisticated border defences.
So what happens? Extreme poverty, still a problem for 300 million workers, may get worse. The report provides details of various estimates about loss of jobs to automation, the World Bank forecasting that two-thirds of jobs in the developing world are susceptible to automation. The rich world will fare better, and starts from a better point to manage transition to new work opportunities plus has less of a younger generation to employ. That is where economic migrants will obviously want to go.
The report talks of fundamental disruption to the world of work, comparing the way the world came together a century ago to found the ILO in the wake of the World War.
The report deserves close attention by world leaders, by political actors everywhere, and by multinationals who are reshaping the world of work not always considering the unforeseen adverse consequences. Action is needed as fast as possible to support the immense number of vulnerable people whose current employment may be precarious and poorly paid, but whose future looks likely to become much worse within one generation. What future for a baby born today in a country of small resources and diminishing work opportunities?
In terms of potential effect on the world as a whole this alarming challenge about future work may have visible disastrous effects even before the worst of climate change takes hold. Everything possible must be done to plan, invest and educate for the future of the young. Talk is cheap and international blueprints only set the scene. The real challenge is where jobs will come from.
The overall aim must be promoting diverse and growing economies, fast multiplying small to medium sized companies that offer a variety of work, not leaving populations high and dry as digital trade, automation, robots and artificial intelligence leave human labour unwanted.
The Global Commission deserves congratulation for its report but what shall be done with it?
The report rightly recognises the strong and complex links between trade, financial, economic and social policies. Yet connecting these diverse strands and those who can influence them requires monumental global collaboration that seems at this time beyond imagining.
While nationalist politics seem to be in the ascendant we never needed more to be a connected and collaborative world.