The Future of Work we want: A Global Dialogue

6 Apr 2017 to 7 Apr 2017
Geneva, Switzerland


Event report/s:
Marissa Lopresti

A significant portion of the second session of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – focused on the future of the working

A significant portion of the second session of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – focused on the future of the working force, which will have a different view on what will be considered a 'decent' job and the different steps we need to begin to take today to prepare for this change.

Similarly to in the first session of this conference, the progress of technology was the main topic in leading change for the future. Mr Eric Manzi, CESTRAR, Rwanda – workers representative, discussed the priority we should place in preparing the youth to face these technical changes, as they will be required to constantly adapt as technology continues to change at a faster rate. We should not be afraid of the advancement of technology, as each time there has been a revolution it has gone hand and hand with a phobia. It is true that in the past, these revolutions have caused short-term job loss, yet they have forced creative productivity, which has lead to the creation of more profit and therefore contributed to the well-being of workers. It is important that we face this digital revolution together, as there will always be inequalities. The only way to fight them is with solidarity at a global level.

Mr Mthunzi Mdwaba, TZoro IBC / Business Unity South Africa, South Africa – Employers discussant, agreed with Manzi, suggesting that we need to learn from history and not face this digital revolution in fear. Innovation and technology have been around for a significant amount of time now, but as technology evolves at a faster rate, we do not have as much time to adapt as we did in the past. It is essential that the education of the youth keeps up with the skills and training needed for them to become part of the future working world. Prof. Cai Fang, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also spoke about the importance of universities changing the way they prepare the youth to enter the work force. Universities should be focused on preparing young people to build cognitive knowledge, as this will drive the ability for people to evolve with the transformation of jobs; this type of knowledge is what will keep humans superior to robots within the labour market.

Prof. Richard Freeman, Harvard University, also discussed an advantage that humans have over robots while speaking on the current state of the job market; there is no shortage of jobs, but a shortage of good quality jobs. Right now it is cheaper to have a human moving the pieces for a machine than it is to build a new machine to do that; though this is an advantage that humans hold, it is a low quality job. People will always be able to compete with robots if they continue to take low enough wages, thus decreasing the quality of work. Prof. Xiaolan Fu, University of Oxford, China Centre, shared a positive view on the structural change that is coming with the changing distinction between high and low quality jobs; the jobs that will be replaced by robots will be the repetitive jobs that are considered low quality. She believes that the creation of new industries will come of this change and we will see a movement across the world in an increase in skill and creativity. While the number of jobs created will be less then those lost, the quality of jobs will increase significantly at a global level.

Fu also spoke in the debate on whether or not the taxation of robots would help slow down the evolving world of technology and force an improvement in inequality globally. She does not believe that the taxation of robots will do any good as this would result in 'winner and loser picking'; all businesses should pay more taxes, which will motivate those businesses to invest in more technology and since humans are the creators of technology, they will be able to control the kind of technology progress we want. Freeman agrees with Fu that the taxation of robots will never happen; as a fight between capital and labour will not lead to anything. He discussed the importance of the incentive and motivation that workers get when they have a stake in a company; when labour and capital work together, there is an increase in income as well as better structure or redistribution. 

Marissa Lopresti

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 ar

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.

Dane Burkholder

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

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.

Dane Burkholder

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, glob

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.

Dane Burkholder

The first discussion on Day 2 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – was a special session.

The first discussion on Day 2 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) conference – The Future of Work We Want: A Global Dialogue – was a special session. The session revolved around how youth of today see the future of work and their role in driving the progress to ensure a future 'we want'. During the panel’s introductions, it became clear that a major theme of the discussion would be the non-linear nature of work for young people, in which long-term careers at one company are being replaced by many different short-term jobs. This shift creates opportunities for non-traditional careers, but it also represents a precarious form of employment requiring new policy solutions.

The conversation first addressed the issue of unpaid internships. Ms Clémentine Moyart,  European Youth Forum, emphasised the fact that unpaid internships largely reinforce inequality and deepen exclusionary forces because only those who can afford to be unpaid reap the benefits of the skills gained. Ms Salonie Hiriyur, an intern at the ILO, and Mr Ammin Youssouf, CEO of Afrobytes, agreed that unpaid internships unfairly indicate that the young person’s labour is not being valued. This concept of ‘creating value’ was revisited multiple times throughout the discussion, particularly regarding the type of work young people look for. The audience was polled, revealing that over 50% believed that the quality of work experience was the most important criterion for a young person entering the labour force, while the rest thought a good salary was most important. Youssouf argued that from a business perspective, it makes sense for employers to provide fulfilling work environments to attract and retain youth workers. However, there was some push-back in thinking of youth as one homogeneous group, especially considering the wide diversity in terms of skills, geography, education, and opportunities across the world. Mr Thiebaut Weber, ETUC Belgium, acknowledged that the approaches to labour policy of Western-centric international organisations such as the ILO, should become more inclusive.

The final part of the discussion revolved around the future of education in preparing youth for changing the labour markets. Participants identified two potential paths: a decentralised approach of home-schooling and online platforms, and a revamped communal education system. Weber, representing the labour union perspective, argued for the latter, believing that training rights and access to education are a social right and the responsibility of the collective. He took issue with pushing for more home-schooling, saying it will further increase inequality. All participants agreed that education must be transformed and distributed in more innovative ways, especially to reach emerging markets such as the rapidly growing need for education in Africa. Hiriyur argued for more emphasis on soft skills, such as communication and social networking in an increasingly automated world, and Youssouf warned against 'putting people into moulds' that restrict their ability to adapt and change jobs. Ultimately, education must allow youth to be flexible in a rapidly changing labour market while allowing the individual to seek personal fulfilment in the work they pursue.

On 6-7 April 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold a conference on 'The Future of Work we want: A Global Dialogue', at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Organised under the ILO Future of Work Centenary Initiative, the symposium will be dedicated to gaining a greater understanding of the changes in the work environments, and to develop effective policy responses that can shape the future of work.  The Symposium will be structured around the Initiative’s four 'centenary conversations': work and society, decent jobs for all, the organisation of work and production, and the governance of work. The event will bring together international thinkers and actors who are at the forefront of debates on each topic. A special session will discuss the perspectives for and views of young people – including representatives of the social partners – in the future of work they will experience. 

Some of the specific topics to be tackled during the two-day event include: the impact of the transfromations in the world of work on how individuals interact; the interplay of technological innovations, structural transformation, economic development, and social challenges and its impact on the future of work; challenges and opportunities faced by young people in the new world of work; the organisation of work and production; and the governance of work.

For more information, visit the event webpage.


The GIP Digital Watch observatory is provided by



and members of the GIP Steering Committee


GIP Digital Watch is operated by

Scroll to Top