The governance of work

10 Apr 2017 02:00h

Event report

The fourth and final session of the of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – discussed the regulatory framework that will be needed in the future to adapt to changing labour structures. The conversation was framed around increased calls for the ILO and other organisations to respond to the apparent erosion of regulatory frameworks throughout the world, as well as posing the question: are new regulatory structures needed in the future?

The session began with the question: will the employer-employee relationship examined by the ILO eventually cease to exist? Prof. Richard Hyman, London School of Economics, first examined the historical roots of changing labour regulations, saying that the recent reversal of the twentieth century restrictions on calling labour a ‘commodity’ have contributed to dangerous market failures throughout the global economy. To address this issue, Mr Roberto Pires, Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, argued for a combination of new and old forms of labour regulations: old methods of enforcement, such as labour inspection – are still relevant, but new techniques must be developed to complement them. Prof. Jennifer Bair, University of Virigina, agreed and took this idea further, arguing for a hybrid model of public and private governance. She argued that private governance alone, such as through corporate social responsibility projects within companies, has failed to be effective, and therefore public governance is still needed. Pires offered an example of this: semi-legal contracts agreed to by Brazilian contractors and labour unions to provide protection for the tens of thousands of part-time workers needed during carnival celebrations.

The conversation then shifted towards protecting those who fall outside the traditional employment relationship, such as those doing informal work. In an audience poll, 82% believed that governments should do more to regulate non-standard forms of employment. Mr Luc Cortebeeck, Confederation of Christian Trade Unions in Belgium, agreed, stating that rights-based governance is essential. The employer representative, Mr Roberto Suárez Santos, pushed back against this claim, arguing that the new sharing economy and cross-border commerce makes it difficult to always identify the employer to regulate. Likewise, he argued that more data about the benefits and costs of the informal economy is needed before regulations should be enacted. The other participants mostly disagreed, believing in the importance of directing the path of labour changes rather than simply reacting. Prof. (Dr) Kamala Sankaran, University of Dehli, highlighted that most of the labour in developing countries is already ‘informal’ to begin with, and this offers regulators an opportunity to create protection for this work from a ‘clean slate’.

Finally, the conversation shifted towards the future of social dialogue in an organisation such as the ILO, through tripartite discussions (in which governments, trade unions, and employers all have a seat at the table). Panellists agreed on the importance of ensuring that all workers and enterprises, especially those outside of formal institutions, gain a voice in these negotiations. As a union representative himself, Cortebeeck argued that unions play a greater role in the dialogue, and that the scope of the dialogue can be extended by encouraging unions to reach out to members of the informal economy. Santos cautioned that this concept of social dialogue was a largely European invention, and therefore might not be inclusive to other areas of the world such as Latin America. In order to avoid exclusiveness, then, an audience poll reflected that innovative methods must be developed in incorporating new voices. As the final session of the conference, this discussion ended in a note of optimism, that collaboration between the ILO and its partners can develop meaningful reforms to ensure ‘decent work’ in the future.