Work and society

11 Apr 2017 02:00h

Event report

The first session of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – focused on work and society today, and the many forces that are leading to change in the future. The panel held a diverse group of speakers, which lead to a wide range of approaches and opinions on the main topics discussed.

The progress of technology was a topic that concerned everyone. As technology continues to develop at an astonishing speed, the question ‘Are robots going to replace workers or open up new opportunities and create jobs?’ came up many times. Ms Isabelle Daugareilh, CNRS, France, discussed her view that robots are not going to end the need for workers, but rather increase the quality of work. For example, in medicine robots are working hand in hand with doctors, improving their performance by reducing the chance of human error, as well as increasing productivity, thus improving the quality of life of many. Mr Marcel van der Linden, International Institute for Social History, the Netherlands, agreed with Daugareilh and talked about how the continued growth in technology will cause displacement, due to the decreased need for unskilled labour workers, while generating an increase in the need for skilled workers. Mr Mkandawire Thandick, London School of Economics, had a slightly different view on the topic, saying that robots are producing surplus due to the increase in productivity. He also raised the question of who is capturing the surplus produced by these ‘productive new structures’. In his view, this surplus is not being used for reinvestment, which is causing a loss in employment.

Mr Philip Jennings, UNI Global Union, Switzerland – worker representative, spoke on the issue of the change in ‘standard employment’ today, and how the digital economy plays a role in this change. With a growth in self-employment, there should be regulations for the self-employed to play their role within the economy, as robots are becoming the employees, leading to the displacement of human work. Mr Peter Woolford, Clairmark Consulting Ltd  and Canadian Employers Council – employer representative, commented on this, saying that the concept of an employee may be disappearing, but the need for human work is not. In creating tools for a change in the future of work, the focus needs to be on building structures where the interest of the individual is addressed, not the interests of the institutions. No matter how work changes, humans will always find a way to adapt and find different kinds of work again, as they have in the past. This is what forces innovation and the creation of different structures of work.

Mr Imraan Valodia, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, touched on the extremely different reality for the future of work within underdeveloped countries. Discussions at events like this conference focus on these kinds of issues as being a new problem, because it is new for large developed countries, but, in reality, this is not a new international problem. The south has been dealing with the issues of inequality and the difficulty in job creation for a very long time now, and the northern countries have a lot to learn from them, specifically concerning issues such as running an economy with not enough jobs, and not being able to bring in reasonable tax revenue. Woolford spoke about how technology has facilitated branches and communication within work for underdeveloped countries, but at the same time, it has also displaced the source of work to other countries. As the industrialisation of robotics and technology is focused in more developed countries, the underdeveloped countries are suffering from ‘brain drain’, as their youth and educated move to the more industrialised areas for better opportunity.

Valodia also touched on the issue of inequality; in the short/mid-term, the changes seen in the labour market will more than likely increase the amount of inequality globally. As capital is rising faster with an increase in productivity, the rate of return is going to go up because capital will be increasing faster than the growth rate and this will lead to an increase in inequality. With that, he thinks we are going to see a lot of the rich becoming richer.