The Future of Work

The theme of “the future of work”  has been catching our attention – and the attention of many deliberative bodies this year.  Both the G20 and G7 have launched initiatives related to this theme, and we certainly saw how it permeated special sessions at the International Labour Organization in April and June and at the WTO Public Forum in September.   Our intern Jacob Haddad had the opportunity last week to attend events featuring more updated insights into the murky world of fortune-telling about jobs and sustainable livelihoods.  One was a Trade Dialogue event at the WTO on 30 October, another was a stimulating panel at the Graduate Institute, and yet another was a more pragmatic review by the ILO Governing Body on how the ILO is preparing to deliver a definitive ILO perspective on the future of work at its Centenary celebrations in 2019.  Of course, we also appreciate the ongoing deliberations of the ILO’s Governing Body on so many related issues, as noted in our commentary below.

E-Commerce and MSMEs

The WTO held one of its “Trade Dialogues” on 30 October, part of a series that got started about a year and a half ago as part of the renewed interest of the business community in the future of the WTO.  The series started with several lectures a focus on the labour market effects of trade.  As we have previously reported, however, this renewed interest has produced a lot of business support for both improving access to trade for micro-small-and-medium enterprises (MSMEs) and for updating the WTO mandate on e-commerce.  So the focus of this particular Trade Dialogue was on “Technology, Globalisation and World Trade Governance” (or, in fact, e-commerce), and it was followed by another event organized by the “Friends of MSMEs”.  Both e-commerce and MSMEs are gathering steam within the WTO setting.  See the WTO reports on these events HERE AND HERE.  These issues were further elaborated at a special event on “The future of work” at the Graduate Institute on 2 November 2016.  See the programme for this event HERE. Our intern Jacob Haddad was well occupied!

On ongoing concern at the WTO is to respond to the anti-trade and anti-globalization rhetoric that is taking hold in so many developed countries (not only the US).  Repeatedly we have been reminded that most “job losses” in the manufacturing sector (e.g. 8 out of 10 proportionately) are due to technological change or increased productivity and not trade.  Of course, that still leaves 2 out of 10 that might be directly associated to trade – and that seems to be enough to make it easier to blame that foreign, imported product than to blame a robot or other technological gadget.  And all of this is happening in a digital economy where the speed and thrust of technological change are both exponentially greater and far more blurred as to location.  The speed of change, furthermore, is “non-linear” and hard to predict, while the emergence of web-based platforms are opening up internationally remote work opportunities, even for workers across linguistic borders as a result of the web-based translators that are part of this latest Internet-based phenomenon of technological change.

The job destruction is, therefore, quite visible.  And the challenge is to determine how to replace it with job creation – preferably in physical or at least practical proximity to the job losses.  Yes, we agree that market expansion for existing products is one channel, at least for the sustainability of existing jobs.  And there are also jobs to be had from product innovations and structural transformations – new industries, more leisure time from higher incomes and reduced working time, an increasing demand for research and development, and yes, changes in consume behaviour.  But, as Jacob reported, there are wide variations among regions and between countries on the effect of these trade-offs between job losses and job gains.  And furthermore, they do require having the capabilities for innovation and job creation in place – both at the public policy level but also at the individual level.

There are initiatives like the “Electronic World Trade Platform” that are disseminating information on what it takes to be competitive.  Our educational systems clearly need to adapt, both in terms of the kinds of skills to help people to acquire but also in terms of shorter-term and targeted training segments and constant retraining to facilitate multiple transitions in work opportunities.  The softer skills, we heard, were important.  Face-to-face customer skills were emphasized in the discussions.  Intellectual flexibility was another phrase that kept on coming up.  One had the impression from these dialogues that the future of work was promising even as there were significant differences from previous technological transformations.  But we also got the impression that it will require the conscious articulation of active labour market policies and attention to small enterprise development by governments – along with an appreciation of how trade fits into all of this.

At the ILO Governing Body

Our intern Jacob Haddad was very impressed with the dynamics of the tripartite structure in the debates of the ILO Governing Body this week.  It is, of course, unique for an international organization to include representatives of Workers and Employers with representatives of governments in the policy debates.  Non-state actors are merely treated as observers and only allowed to present their written statements at the tail end of intergovernmental debates if at all.  At the WTO, they can’t even attend official intergovernmental meetings.  On the other hand, as Jacob also observed, the decision-making process at the ILO appeared to move forward only when the three groups had already agreed on the outcome.  Only once during the week of meetings that he observed did he witness a contentious debate, and that one (on the future agenda for sectoral meetings) was set aside for further off-site negotiations.  (We note that this one was also eventually resolved, perhaps at a time that he was not in the room.)

We do appreciate that there are nuances in the tripartite exchanges that might not sound divisive but that do still reflect the challenges in finding a consensus among the three constituent groups  We saw this in the debate, for example, on the progress report for the Centenary initiatives.  See the progress report HERE.  There are seven thematic areas for these initiatives, and we like them all – governance, standards, enterprises, ending poverty, green jobs, gender, and the future of work itself.  The report on these initiatives was a useful source of information about ILO work and alignments with others, both past and immediate future.  And the debate did show where there are a number of bipartite (i.e. between Employers and Workers) if not tripartite divisions.

Needless to say, it is the initiative on enterprises that stirs the most debate.  The tensions do remain on the matter of how to implement a work plan on global supply chains – an issue that produced a compromise action plan at the 2016 International Labour Conference.  One also heard warnings about the dangers of creating a “fourth constituency” in the form of direct partnering with enterprises as opposed to employers’ associations. There are, after all, numerous new or evolving business networks (on disabilities, on social protection floors, a child labour platform, and perhaps one soon on forced labour and human trafficking).  So the Office engages in a careful balancing act to include enterprises with support from both the employers associations AND the labour unions.  Similarly, on the training programmes that the ILO delivers for enterprise development, there needs to be an attentiveness to the importance of social dialogue.

We appreciate what the ILO is doing on the “Green Initiative” and on the “Gender Initiative”.  The one includes a new Memorandum of Understanding with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for incorporating a “just transition” and environmental sustainability for all in the implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  We note, too, that the ILO’s 2018 World Employment and Social Outlook will feature “Greening with Jobs”.  Economic diversification and the interplay between “green” and “brown” jobs continue to stir emotions, especially among the Workers.

On the Gender Initiative, the 2017 World Employment and Social Outlook featured “women at work”, documenting how women are and want to be part of the economy and the challenges in pay gaps and discriminatory barriers.  We look forward to a further report on wage and earnings inequalities in the lead-up to the 2019 Centenary, and an additional report due in March 2018 on “care jobs and the care economy” in a changing world. We also appreciate the preparations for the International Labour Conference to work on a new international instrument o violence against both women and men in the world of work which will be part of the 2019 Conference.

Finally, we note that the “future of work” in general is one of the Centenary initiatives.  All of those deliberations and dialogues at the WTO and elsewhere are converging into a resource base for this overall theme at the 2019 Conference.  We understand that this is a long way off, but we appreciate the accumulation of insights on how to avoid doom and gloom about this future.  We are reminded, as it was emphasized in the Graduate Institute’s event, that the alternative of a “universal basic income” is neither feasible in the foreseeable future (because of how much it would cost to set it up) nor is it necessarily desirable.  The approach at the ILO is to look at the interplay between work and society, the importance of decent jobs for all, the organization of work and production in this “gig” economy, and the implications of all of this for the “governance” of work.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply