The future of prosperity

Industry 4.0 and climate change pose serious challenges to global stability – tough choices must be made if we are to avoid major social upheaval

Martin Luther King said: “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. As the International Labour Organization (ILO) embarks on its centenary year it is busy preparing for the challenges of the coming decades and the radical upheaval the employment market is undergoing.

These issues are starkly framed by the Global Commission on the Future of Work’s report, ‘Work for a brighter future’, the outcome of a 15-month project initiated by the ILO and co-chaired by President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa and Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden.

The Commission’s findings lay out some stark choices raised by Industry 4.0 technology, evolving work practices and climate change. The chief message is the need for a collective global response to the disruptions and a human-centred agenda that puts people’s needs at the heart of policies. The ILO has a unique membership structure that brings together governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations as equals to shape its work, something that should put it in a strong position to promote this approach. But can it make its tripartite stakeholders listen?

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There are numerous projections available for the upheaval posed by automation. For example, PwC recently estimated 38% of jobs in the US, 30% of jobs in the UK, and 35% in Germany were at risk, however the Commission report avoids posting any specific figures of its own. For good reason, says ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “It’s not that we don’t think it’s important, but there is a real danger in doing so because it creates a sense of technological determinism,” he says, “The employment impact of innovation will be, above all, a function of the policies we apply. This is a policy debate so we looked at the qualitative impact on jobs, rather than the quantitative dimension.”

The emergence of the international digital platform economy threatens to further destabilise the existing, already delicate, world-of-work ecosystem of governments, employers and workers, applying an informal employment model across entire continents. In response, the 27-member Global Commission recommends a ‘Universal Labour Guarantee’ that includes protecting workers’ rights and collective bargaining.

“Chancellor Merkel said the application of new technology could help us improve our lives but it could also create a 21st Century generation of digital day labourers and that’s a policy decision.” maintains Ryder, “There’s a clear international dimension to the platform economy which is a challenge to regulation. The report calls for an international response.”

“There’s a critical decision to be made about the way we want to organise our markets and the way we regulate and constrain bad behaviour, but there’s actually nothing new about those challenges.”

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Guy Ryder, Director-General. ILO

One of the key tenets of the report’s human-centred agenda is the requirement for ‘lifelong learning’, beginning with education, continuing through the acquisition of skills, reskilling and upskilling to tackle the impact of rapid technological progress. In addition - considering it took around 75 years for the telephone to connect to 50 million people while Pokemon Go was downloaded 100 million times in a month - there is a fundamental factor about the pace of change to be grasped.

We have to re-examine the idea that we learn for the first 20 years of our lives and work for the next 50. The two must be intertwined and combined so they continue,” says Ryder. “This is firstly a role for government to overhaul the state provision of education, then employers because they are often well-placed to train staff, and equally, workers need to be open and receptive to learning new skills.”

Another significant aspect of the Future of Work report is its focus on the environment. The impact of climate change will challenge business in ways unforeseen during last century’s economic expansion. Rising temperatures, poor air quality, natural disasters and migration are all likely to accelerate unless action is taken, but the ILO message is that this doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of jobs. Its World Employment and Social Outlook 2018 Greening with Jobs report says 1.2 billion jobs depend on a stable and healthy environment, but it also suggests the green economy can create 24 million jobs. In turn, the Future of Work report urges investment in sustainable business.

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“For some time there was a widely held view that there was a choice to be made between creating jobs and generating growth on the one hand, and on the other protecting the planet, and the decision was to keep our foot on the pedal of growth and jobs,” says Ryder. “It’s only in the last five to ten years that the evidence has revealed this was a false choice. Protecting jobs now goes hand-in-hand with protecting the planet. There are huge policy decisions to be made about restructuring industrial and productivity systems but they must be taken and the ILO will lead the debate.”

For Ryder, the transformation of industry and the impact on the labour market will pose real threats to global stability but can also provide the opportunity for positive change. He believes the ILO should be front and centre in these debates about constructive solutions, using its unique strengths and structure to make the case for a new order prioritising decent work and social justice.