Much discussion of the future of work suggests it can only be a dystopian, robotic world. But the report of an ILO commission shows how humans, not algorithms, can be in charge.
When the International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded 100 years ago in the aftermath of the first world war, governments, employers and workers came together convinced that lasting peace and stability depended on social justice. This is still true and, given the dramatic changes we are seeing, should encourage us to take bold and timely action. The constitution of the ILO of 1919, reinforced by the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944, remains the most ambitious global social contract in history. It is time to reinvigorate it to meet the challenges of today.
Against this background, the Global Commission on the Future of Work has presented a report to the ILO, offering responses to the fundamental and disruptive changes in working life taking place around the world. We are convinced that such technological advances as artificial intelligence and robotics will create new jobs. But those who lose their jobs in this transition need support if we want to ensure no one is left behind and avoid the growth of inequality.
In our report we call for a human-centred agenda for the future of work. That is the Leitmotiv of our development model to regulate the use of artificial intelligence. We subscribe to a ‘human-in-command’ approach, which would ensure that the final decisions affecting work are taken by human beings, not algorithms.
Opportunities and challenges
Technology, including artificial intelligence, robotics and sensors, entails countless opportunities to improve work. The extraction of knowledge through data mining can assist labour administrations to identify high-risk sectors and improve labour inspection systems. Blockchain technology could make it easier for companies and the social partners to monitor working conditions and labour-law compliance in supply chains.
But digital technology also creates new challenges for decent work. Digital labour platforms provide new sources of income to many workers in different parts of the world, yet the dispersed nature of the work across international jurisdictions makes it difficult to establish workers’ rights. The work on platforms is sometimes poorly paid—even below prevailing minimum wages—and no official mechanisms are in place to address unfair treatment. Thus I introduced into the commission the idea of an international governance system for digital-labour platforms, which would require platforms (and their clients) to respect certain minimum rights and protections. (I will detail how this regulation could be established in another article on Social Europe.)
No matter what form work takes, we are convinced that there are certain rights which should be guaranteed to all workers, regardless of their contractual arrangement or employment status. Thus our report calls for a ‘universal labour guarantee’, which would include fundamental workers’ rights and a set of basic working conditions. Freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining must be guaranteed for all forms of work—as well as freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination. For all workers, guaranteed working conditions must include an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces.
To put the Universal Labour Guarantee into practices, as a minimum standard, would require governments to subscribe to it and employers’ associations and trade unions to enforce it. Social dialogue is still the best tool to manage change and guarantee a human-centred world of work in the transformation we are facing. But to be able to achieve this, social-partner organisations must develop too. Employers’ organisations need to adapt to changing needs and to reinforce their capacity to service an increasingly diverse set of business interests. And workers’ organisations need to adopt innovative organising techniques—including the use of digital technology to organise labour across diverse workplaces and across borders.
The ILO itself needs to strengthen its role, to reinvigorate the global social contract. It has to become the international focal point for the development and comparative analysis of national future-of-work strategies. We also recommend that the organisation set up an expert monitoring group to track the technologies affecting the world of work and advise on how the resulting policy challenges should be addressed. The ILO needs to evaluate its standards and ensure they are up to date, relevant and subject to adequate supervision.
We further recommend that the ILO promote coordination among all relevant UN organisations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization in framing and implementing the human-centred agenda set out in our report—there are strong, complex and crucial links between trade, financial, and economic and social policies. The success of the human-centred growth and development agenda we propose depends heavily on coherence across these policy areas.
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The world of work is changing dramatically and we face serious challenges. But if we take bold action we will be able to make it a change for the better.
Thorben Albrecht is policy director at the trade union IG Metall. He was a member of the Global Commission on the Future of Work established by the ILO and a state secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs from 2014 to 2018.