A Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work: Nibbling at the Edges

The Future of Work as a policy framework has been a fairly recurrent preoccupation of both scholars and policy makers. Whenever major changes have come along to disrupt how work is organized, we have typically been drawn to the adjustment challenges. Jobs are lost, and other jobs come along. Pessimists worry about the whole phenomenon of lost employability, while optimists focus on the new opportunities. All assume that sustainable livelihoods are dependent on full, productive and freely chosen employment. Without dwelling on past transitions, however, I am impressed by the surprising mix of pessimism and optimism about the major changes affecting employability that we are all dealing with today. In that context, the recent momentum for adopting a so-called human-centered approach to the future of work, as articulated in the Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work at the International Labour Conference is a significant development. In this commentary I reflect on that odd mixture of pessimism and optimism about the future of work and conclude that the ILO’s Centenary Declaration only “nibbles at the edges” of what needs to be done.

While the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work contains quite a laundry list of things to do for the sake of social justice in the world of work, it also clings to the ILO’s past ways of doing these things.  The overall impression is a modest “nibbling at the edges” rather than a bold platform for the future. This is disappointing because the future of work is itself both exciting and scary, with awesome opportunities in the technological advances for human-centered productivity and alarming risks of a hugely disproportionate distribution of those opportunities. This commentary starts with a reflection on this dilemma involving the future of work and then moves to the ways in which the new Centenary Declaration tries to take it on with its “human-centered” approach. More certainly needs to be done!

The Future of Work Dilemma

Here is the dilemma. It does seem that high-skilled jobs and low-skilled jobs are burgeoning but that middle-skilled jobs are dramatically decreasing in number. There is, furthermore, a marked shift away from manufacturing jobs to service-sector jobs, along with an increasing automation of production, to say nothing about the rural/small town/urban shifts in employment opportunities and continuing prevalence of informality, whether in advanced or emerging or developing economies. The disruptive impact of these phenomena is aggravated by the growing disparities between the top or high-skilled/high-income jobs and the bottom or low-skilled jobs, and an ever smaller proportion of mid-level jobs.  And, of course, all of this is further challenged by the transforming implications of advances in artificial intelligence.  Who and how many will be needed in the future to do any of the work that drives our economies?

What is the answer to this dilemma? How does one ensure that there are enough jobs for everyone who wants one, regardless of skill level, when most of the job growth is in high-skilled jobs? Well yes, for the time being there seem to be a lot of lower-paying jobs and a growing “care economy” for the time being. And  yes, one can certainly concentrate on broadening and deepening education and learning of skills to enable everyone to be employable in higher-skilled work. Basic skills are coming to be understood as requiring more than literacy and numeracy to encompass reasoning skills and social skills. And a more continuous emphasis on lifelong learning to replace defunct skills with new ones throughout a series of job content transitions is also becoming more widely embraced. But does this all mean that everyone, even among the low-skilled, can eventually be high-skilled with the right learning tools? Doubtful.

If one takes a “human-centered” approach to this dilemma, it seems that one has to do more than open up learning systems and processes to everyone. One has to focus on the variability in capacities of individuals regardless of how much training they receive or skills they acquire. That means being attentive to the employability of individuals as part of the policy framework – that is, defining jobs that are adaptable to the skill levels of the existing labor supply and not just defining training programs to fit the existing jobs. So instead of just concluding that those individuals who are not employable should just receive a minimum income support level regardless of whether they work or not, one should focus on a human-centered approach to  job definitions and not just a human-based approach to improving employability.

This perspective leads to an entirely different appreciation for the “social contract”. That is to say, the traditional concept of collective bargaining has relied on collective representation to ensure decent working conditions, reasonable job qualifications, appropriate working time and pay and job protections. With a broadened “human-centered” approach to the future of work, the bargaining context goes beyond all of this to include the very content of jobs for individuals. So even though increasing numbers of jobs are defined as short-term or part-time or even as self-employed, including the huge impetus coming from what we know as the “digital platform”, the human-centered approach could mean that individuals in these kinds of irregular positions should have the same kind of labour rights as regular full-time employees have had through social dialogue and collective bargaining. (Some of the change, too, can come from redefining what “full-time” actually means, of course.) I had not fully appreciated this perspective until it suddenly struck me that the tripartism of the International Labour Organization is itself being called upon to accommodate this human-centered approach!

In the past, I have been a strong advocate of “tripartism-plus” at the ILO. I have criticized the ILO for being too rigid in defining the changing nature of the world of work through the lens of workers’ and employers’ representatives and governments in an oversight role. (See, for example, my essay on the Social Dimension of Globalization addressing these same issues in 2003, at the beginning of the twenty-first century). What’s wrong with other kinds of NGOs, like women’s rights groups or organizations fighting against forced or child labor, and having a say in the world of work independent of any official workers’ representative? Isn’t it often the case that workers’ representatives have not been attentive to gender concerns such as the predominance of women in the informal sector or to child labor concerns since children aren’t themselves “eligible” to become members of workers’ organizations? And what about the friction between workers and environmentalists over the phasing out of relatively well-paid jobs in polluting industries? And from the employers’ perspective, what’s wrong with small and medium enterprises negotiating directly with their workers or with multinational companies hooking up directly with gender or child labor or environmental groups independently of national-level employers’ organizations? Through voluntary corporate social responsibility initiatives?

The Centenary Declaration – a “Human-Centered” Approach

At the International Labor Conference last month, delegates adopted a new Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work. This was an ambitious project. The ILO was established in 1919, one hundred years ago. It was a unique feature of the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty ending World War I, which also established the intergovernmental League of Nations. In the case of the ILO, however, the governance included workers’ and employers’ representatives at the national level, independent of the member states’ governments. So it was more than intergovernmental. It was tripartite – but still based on an intergovernmental structure. From its inception, furthermore, it was premised on the essential need for “continuous and concerted action” by these tripartite representatives to achieve “social justice, democracy and the promotion of universal and lasting peace”. (These quoted phrases refer to the origins of the ILO as stated in the preamble to the new Declaration.)

The ILO has undergone a series of restatements or refinements of this underlying vision to reflect changes in the world and their impact on the working world – one such restatement at the end of World War II known as the Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) and others since then to highlight fundamental principles and rights at work (1998) or the importance of social justice for a “fair globalization” (2008). But, as this latest Centenary Declaration reaffirms, the ILO vision is based on the notion that full and productive employment is integral to economic growth and that this means “the continued relevance of the employment relationship” for ensuring certainty and legal protections for all workers. It is the future of WORK, as the International Labor Conference declared, that is “fundamental for sustainable development” and that it is through work, therefore, that one can put “an end to poverty” and leave “no one behind”. (Quotes are drawn from this new Declaration.)

Taking this one step further, the basic message of the Centenary Declaration is that ensuring this “human-centered” approach to the future of work can only be realized if workers’ rights and “the needs, aspirations and rights of all people” are based on the “full, equal and democratic participation” of workers, employers and governments in the ILO’s “tripartite governance”. This is not “tripartism plus”. This is holding emphatically to the traditional tripartite framework, as originally envisioned in the Versailles Treaty. “Social dialogue” is reaffirmed in this new Declaration, “including collective bargaining and tripartite cooperation,” to be “an essential foundation of all ILO action”. Further, the Declaration mandates the ILO to “strengthen the capacity of its tripartite constituents” so that they can be “strong and representative social partner organizations”.

Well, I do agree that the realization of social justice through full, productive and freely chosen employment does require provision for everyone in an employment relationship to benefit from his or her efforts – and that this may require some kind of access for each and every employee to have a say, some kind of representation of his or her interests, regarding the nature of the work, access to skills, benefits and working conditions. And, oh yes, maybe even some kind of work-related decision-making process for social protection systems more generally to be derived from and adapted to the world of work. (Of course, one has to accommodate all those people who are not in the workforce, whether informal or formal, but we are still operating here with a presumption that sustainability of livelihoods comes from employment.)

The Tripartism Dilemma

The rationale for social dialogue and tripartism, it seems to me, is dependent on those workers’ and employers’ representatives effectively representing the interests of workers and/or employers in all the “diverse forms of work arrangements, production and business models, including in domestic and global supply chains” that are being “driven by technological innovations, demographic shifts, environmental and climate change and globalization”, as well as this additional matter of “persistent inequalities”. These are all phrases, again, from the Centenary Declaration. But again, the Declaration sticks with the ILO’s entrenched positions on social dialogue and tripartism to accommodate all of these changes.

Maybe the traditional tripartite entities of the past can absorb all these challenges of discovering how to represent and be accountable to such a variety of interests. That in itself is daunting for the traditional workers’ organizations. But, above and beyond the capacity of existing workers’ organizations to reach out to the growing variety of “irregular” workers in these incredibly growing new settings, there is the additional issue of how the OTHER side of the relationship might even agree to accommodating a “human-centered” approach. How is the employer side of this tripartism to be implemented to encompass all these different kinds of employment relationships, to say nothing of negotiating with some kind of monolithic representative body, whether on the worker or employer side about these kinds of things? The evidence so far is not very convincing.

In a recent commentary on “The Future of Work and the ILO Centenary”, I shared my views on the ILO’s continuing attachment to tripartism. It was reiterated, as I noted, even in the forward-looking report for the 2019 Centennial of the ILO prepared by a blue-ribbon panel of experts on “Work for a brighter future”. The Commission report, however, did propose two other ideas (a universal labour guarantee and an innovation lab for the platform economy) that I had seen as possible incentives for a more inclusive social dialogue. The idea of a universal labour guarantee was intriguing as a way to establish regulatory oversight by mandating everyone’s right to a job, but it was clearly rejected in the Centenary Declaration. The Conference reiterated the importance of work as the means for sustainable livelihoods but did not accept the idea that it should be a guarantee.

On the second idea of experimenting with an innovation lab, it might have been a bit too specific for a declaration, but the alternative language in the Declaration is a bit odd. It refers to promoting “policies and measures that ensure appropriate privacy and personal data protection,” which isn’t exactly the point of a new focus on the platform economy. It then states as a follow-on point that calls on all members to “respond to challenges and opportunities in the world of work relating to the digital transformation of work, including platform work”. It might have been better if the latter part of that phrase had been separated from the privacy and data protection concerns, but at least it is mentioned (without specifically calling for any experimentation in employment relationships).

Good News on Safety and Health and on Multilateral Engagement

On another point, I was pleased to see that the Commission on the Future of Work had recommended adding occupational safety and health as one of the “fundamental principles and rights at work” that would have expanded that 1998 Declaration. The Conference, however, did not agree to take that step, even though there is a carefully phrased statement in the Centenary Declaration that “Safe and healthy working conditions are fundamental to decent work”. And the resolution accompanying the Centenary Declaration does request the Governing Body of the ILO “to consider, as soon as possible, proposals for including safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO’s framework of fundamental principles and rights at work”. This is a good step forward for the ILO.

Perhaps it was not feasible to embrace an amendment to the 1998 Declaration, but that is the place where the ILO did finally distinguish what the “core” labour standards should be. That is to say, the 1998 Declaration referred to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, no forced labour, ending child labour and non-discrimination as the “fundamental principles and rights at work”. But in most of the initiatives for responsible labour practices external to the ILO that have attracted public support, the basic conditions of work encompassing minimum wages, working time and safe and health working conditions have also been highlighted. So workplace safety and health really needs to be seen as a fundamental principle and right at work. (Maybe wages and working time should also be there as fundamental principles and rights at work, but they are, at least included in the Centenary Declaration in a list of institutional protections, along with that core list of fundamental rights and now the separate listing of safety and health at work.) Anyway, the accompanying resolution adopted by the ILC in June does seem to suggest that the ILO’s “framework of fundamental principles and rights at work” is something more than the 1998 Declaration.  It’s about time!

It is good, also, that both the Commission report and the Centenary Declaration embraced the concept of expanding multilateral engagements. The Declaration even uses the mandatory language on this point – that is to say that “the ILO must take an important role in the multilateral system” with a view “to promote policy coherence in pursuit of its human-centred approach to the future of work” and also “recognizing the strong, complex and crucial links, between social, trade, financial, economic and environmental policies”. The significance of this instruction is reinforced by the fact that the accompanying resolution on follow-up by the ILO Governing Body specifically requests the Director-General to proceed with “proposals aimed at promoting greater coherence within the multilateral system”.


It is a bit strange that the Declaration has not yet been widely publicized, in contrast to the success of the Conference to approve a new standard on harassment at work. Maybe Conference delegates were too cautious in articulating the future challenges, while also clinging to the existing governance of the ILO. It is interesting, though, that the delegates did emphasize the need to ratify a long-standing but not yet ratified 1986 amendment to the ILO Constitution that would reflect more accurately the regional and North/South balance of its membership. This correcting of the balance in governance structures should not be ignored, but I join others who are skeptical about the future of tripartism without more flexibility for other actors in the world of work, above and beyond the correcting of any regional imbalances.

The Declaration does cover lots of issues that were not featured in earlier declarations and are clearly challenges for the ILO dealing with the future of work going forward – issues like migration, privacy and personal data protection, social protection systems, lifelong learning, disabilities, youth, older workers, even entrepreneurship – and lots of attention to gender concerns. And there are passing references here and there to the importance of responding to “the changing patterns of the world of work”, but these are almost peripheral – a “nibbling at the edges” on the “future of work dilemma”.   It is quite striking that the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke at the closing session of the Conference praising the accomplishments of a new Declaration, but he, too, noted that “We’re not prepared” yet for the new balance between work, leisure and other activities.

The “human-centered” approach of the Declaration inches toward that dilemma, but it is strange that the reference in the Declaration to “achieving a better work-life balance” is listed only as a way to achieve “gender equality at work” rather than as a goal that is appropriate for everyone. This is included with other provisions to achieve gender equality at work through enabling a “more balanced sharing of family responsibilities” and promoting “investment in the care economy”. It is good that the Declaration does reaffirm that gender equality per se does include “equal opportunities, equal participation and equal treatment, including equal remuneration…”, but the implication that work-life balance, family responsibilities and the care economy are gender issues would suggest that “We’re not prepared” yet for handling these challenges as applicable to all of us in the “future of work”.

On an institutional front, some recent scholarly analysis of the ILO, published by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, has described the “institutional layering” of the ILO. The concept is apt, in that the authors claim that the ILO has been “incentivized to perpetuate the institutional status quo” but that it has also “appended” mechanisms, rules and even other actors to its existing structure to accommodate changes in the world of work over the years since 1919. This commentary is long enough as it is, but I will certainly look at the risks and benefits in future commentaries of this kind of “institutional layering”, and how the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work might provide the vision both for a “human-centered approach” to the future of work and for a significant ILO role in that future.

The dilemma for all of us is that technological changes, demographic shifts, environmental and climate change and globalization are transforming our understanding of work and its future for sustainable livelihoods – and for social justice, democracy and the promotion of universal and lasting peace. I have dwelt at length on the dilemma and on the need for more bold action than one sees at the ILO.  My own conclusion, then, is that the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, 2019, is a significant illustration of the push for the new competing with a pull from the old. This should not be all that surprising, I suppose, and I close here by choosing to be a bit more optimistic. Nibbling at the edges is at least giving us a taste for where we need to go.  Happy Centennial Anniversary to the ILO!

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