Session 3 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – addressed the theme of how changing technology, globalisation, increased financialisation of the economy and other factors, have changed the basic employer-employee relationship. Broadly, the discussion focused on the need to reconcile the changing nature of control vs responsibility in terms of companies’ global supply chains and the regulations to which they adhere.
Prof. David Weil, Boston University, began by arguing that although the ‘future of work’ discussion had focused largely on the digital ‘gig economy’, profound changes have in fact been made to the structure of work going back decades. As multinational corporations have shifted their processes outwards through outsourcing, subcontracting, and other practices, they have created a ‘fissured workplace’. The responsibility for labour standards is no longer in their hands but spread out throughout the supply chain, when in fact they remain largely in control. In response, Prof Fabrizio Cafaggi, European University Institute, argued that there are two main ways to reconcile this control and responsibility: realign responsibility back to the lead company, or distribute responsibly to the local level and ensure suppliers are held accountable for labour standards. He concluded that a combination of these strategies should be pursued.
The discussion then shifted towards the impact of this changing work dynamic on social protection measures and enforcement of labour laws. Participants mostly agreed that on-the-ground workers were no longer receiving the economic benefits of their work, and that redistribution measures must counteract this. Prof. Florence Palpacuer, University of Montpellier, argued that before attempting to stabilise workers’ situations, the global economy must be stabilised. In attempting to protect worker’s rights, regulators could either reform local institutions at the base of the supply chain or impose Western regulatory frameworks on these intermediaries. Mr Youba Sokona, South Centre, argued for the former, saying that existing social protection systems in developing counties can be adapted to better protect workers. There was consensus amongst participants however, that ‘private enforcement’ (whereby private companies self-regulate and choose suppliers with ethical labour standards) has largely failed, and that governance is needed to fill the gap.
The conversation then shifted to two increasingly-important employment distinctions: informal work, and the self-employed. Ms Catelene Passchier, Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (Dutch Federation of Trade Unions; FNV), lamented the lack of increase in formal working arrangements over the past few decades, especially as informal work tends to provide fewer benefits and protections for workers. She blamed corporations and their 'vanishing trick' of finding creative ways to make their workforce seem unofficial. The panellist representing employers, Mr Kris de Meester, Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique, disagreed; he argued that the world will always have informal working arrangements and that this was not necessarily a bad thing.
The final conversation was sparked by a question from Minister Lee from South Korea, who asked for more collaboration between governments and the ILO to strengthen protection for the growing population of self-employed throughout the world. Sokona and Palpacuer agreed that the ILO should pivot in its thinking to understand the conditions self-employed are working under and look for ways to give them more support. However, de Meester argued that based on surveys, most self-employed people chose to work that way for autonomy and independence rather than being forced to do so, which suggests further regulation is not needed. As the workplace continues to change due to automation and dispersed business models, self-employment will become an increasingly relevant topic for policy decisions.