ILO calls for work in the future to be human-centred

Among the International Labour Organisation's recommendations was a "universal labour guarantee" that would help protect workers' safety and well-being regardless of contractual arrangements or employment status.
Among the International Labour Organisation's recommendations was a "universal labour guarantee" that would help protect workers' safety and well-being regardless of contractual arrangements or employment status.PHOTO: ST FILE

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has urged that work in the future be human-centred as it launched an ambitious agenda to refocus discussion about work, which is being rapidly transformed by technological and economic change.

Among the recommendations by the United Nations body is a "universal labour guarantee" to help protect workers' safety and well-being regardless of contractual arrangements or employment status, as well as to ensure that artificial intelligence tools being created still allow people - not machines - to make the final decisions.

"In the 20th century, we established that labour is not a commodity. In the 21st century, we must also ensure that labour is not a robot," said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who co-chairs an ILO-appointed global commission that came up with the recommendations on the future of work. These were presented in Geneva yesterday morning.

ILO director-general Guy Ryder, speaking to the media alongside Mr Ramaphosa, stressed: "The number of jobs, the future of employment is not going to be determined alone by the autonomous forward march of technology... It depends on the choices to be made by policymakers and it is perfectly possible, with the application of exactly the same technologies, to create what we would regard as very positive employment-rich solutions."

The commission's report called for "committed action on the part of governments as well as employers' and workers' organisations".

"They need to reinvigorate the social contract that gives working people a just share of economic progress, respect for their rights and protection against risk in return for their continuing contribution to the economy," it said.

Recent studies of high-income economies found that wage growth has not kept pace with productivity growth. Meanwhile, large technological companies are often able to dominate their respective markets by gathering and using massive amounts of digital data.

The commission noted both the potential and the danger of these swift technology changes: While applications and sensors can make it easier for companies to monitor the working conditions down their supply chains, new technologies also generate large amounts of data on workers that can be misused.

"Algorithms used for job matching may reproduce historical biases and prejudices, for example," it said, as it also urged governments to develop regulations that would require firms to be accountable for the way they use data and algorithms.

"Workers should be informed of any monitoring done at the workplace and limits should be imposed on the collection of data that might prompt discrimination, such as on union membership," it said. "Workers should have access to their own data, as well as the right to hand that information to their representative or regulatory authority."

Meanwhile, the universal labour guarantee being promoted by the ILO specifies workers' rights to unionise, working conditions, as well as an adequate living wage.

This guarantee should be complemented by a system of entitlements to training so that all workers can take paid time off to learn new skills.

The panel suggested that employment insurance could be reconfigured, or "social funds" created, so that self-employed workers or those working in small firms who are less likely to receive training from employers will also benefit.

Some industries meet important global needs and present compelling opportunities to create decent and sustainable work, the report noted.

Ageing populations, for example, have increased the need for care services, creating an industry that could create more than 475 million jobs around the world by 2030. To get there, governments should invest in quality care services and support unpaid care workers who wish to return to paid employment, it said.

Developing a formal care economy also opens the way for gender equality, allowing countries to harness the full potential of their female workforces.

Meanwhile, the ILO also called for a rethink of business incentives, to allow company executives to think beyond their usual bottom lines.

Recent studies have highlighted the worrying trend of firms channelling investments through offshore tax havens, for example.

An International Monetary Fund article last year highlighted how US$12 trillion (S$16 trillion) - almost 40 per cent of all foreign direct investment positions globally - is "completely artificial", consisting of financial investments passing through "empty corporate shells with no real activity".

This practice creates more opportunities for tax avoidance or evasion, it said.

Addressing this, the ILO called for the reshaping of the current business climate to nudge firms to prioritise the welfare of workers and their larger communities.

Some possible measures include creating advisory stakeholder councils or even ending the requirement for quarterly financial reporting. Another idea is to create incentives for shareholders to stay invested in a company for the long term.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2019, with the headline 'ILO calls for work in the future to be human-centred'. Print Edition | Subscribe