A human-centred approach to the future of work: time to walk the walk

by Thorben Albrecht 

The centenary of the International Labour Organization saw publication of a major report on the future of work. Action on its recommendations is now even more urgent.

the future of work
Thorben Albrecht

Last year the International Labour Organization adopted its ‘Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work‘ to face into the organisation’s second century. Now—one year and a severe crisis later—it is time to review the declaration and, even more importantly, move from declarations to action.

The declaration was based on a report from an independent Global Commission on the Future of Work. But while the report suggested concrete steps actively to shape the future of work, the official ILO declaration merely adopted some headlines and buzzwords. It fell short of taking on the active policies advanced to secure the proclaimed ‘human-centred approach to the future of work, which puts workers’ rights and the needs, aspirations and rights of all people at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies’.

More urgent

But active policies are even more urgent, since we have witnessed during the Covid-19 crisis a boost in the use of digital technologies. We have seen the opportunities of these technologies, but also how dependent we are on monopolistic platforms—and how vulnerable are those who keep these platforms running every day. We are aware that a number of jobs lost in the crisis will not return in a recovery but rather be displaced by technology.

We have seen how important good public services are and we have all applauded the care workers, especially in health, who have held up humanity and saved human lives—often risking their own. But will there be long-term appreciation of care and investment in it, including better wages and working conditions for care workers?

The vulnerability of informal workers has become visible, especially in the global south. But do we really expect better social protection after the crisis? Or measures which ensure that new forms of informal labour, such as on the fast-growing labour platforms, are regulated to protect those working there?

Global supply chains—already under pressure from the unilateral power politics of the largest global economies—have shown too their limits in the crisis. But will they be redesigned so that sustainability, as well as human and workers’ rights, becomes an important factor?

The current health crisis and the economic crisis which has followed will speed up transformations already under way, especially the digitalisation and decarbonisation of our economies—and maybe deglobalisation too. Only if active policies to protect workers in these transitions are effected by governments and multilateral organisations can a just transition towards a human-centred future for work be possible. The 2019 report from the global commission provides important ideas as to what these policies could look like.

Investment priorities

The report urged governments to invest in the care economy, the green economy and rural economies. It called on them to supply high-quality physical, digital and social infrastructures, as a prerequisite for the transformation of our economies to promote decent and sustainable work. Now that governments and multilateral organisations are having to invest huge sums to foster a recovery, these priorities could guide them. And the promotion of social dialogue—also a key element of the commission’s recommendations—could make sure that recovery measures benefit both the economy and the wider society.

The report also called for a transformative and measurable agenda for gender equality, including public policies to foster the sharing of unpaid work. This seems even more urgent now, since we have witnessed a backlash on gender equality and women’s share of unpaid work is increasing

The same is true of the commission’s plea for universal entitlement to lifelong learning, helping workers and the unemployed to reskill, upskill and acquire new skills through an appropriately financed learning ecosystem. Against the background of soaring unemployment and the ever-faster application of new technologies, financing the (re)qualification of unemployed and workers vulnerable to technological change needs to be part of any recovery scheme.

With the growing use of artificial intelligence at workplaces and the increasing power of labour platforms, harnessing and managing technology for decent work should also be a priority. The commission’s recommendations included a ‘human-in-command’ approach to AI and an international governance system for digital labour platforms, to ensure certain minimum rights and protections.

Also, the report called for a ‘universal labour guarantee’ to secure fundamental workers’ rights, an adequate living wage and safe and healthy workplaces, regardless of contractual arrangements or employment status. This could be an answer to the vulnerability of non-standard forms of work which has become apparent in the Covid-19 crisis, as has the importance of safe and healthy workplaces.

The same is true for social protection, as we have witnessed the cost of insufficient welfare systems—including the loss of human life—during the pandemic. An adequate, universal social-protection floor, complemented by contributory social-insurance schemes providing increased protection, must be a priority for governments in the aftermath of the crisis.

International co-operation

All these policies should steer not only governments but multilateral institutions as well. The ILO has provided important guidance through global, regional, sectoral and thematic recommendations during the crisis. A human-centred, post-crisis, growth and development agenda depends even more on coherence across policy areas and national boundaries. International co-operation remains crucial in reacting to the crisis and for recovery measures.

Against this background, it would be helpful to reactivate the global commission or find other ways to develop a post-pandemic agenda for the future of work, with concrete measures to secure a just transition. It is even more important now than a year ago to walk the walk and put this agenda, and associated measures, into practice.

This is part of a series on the Transformation of Work supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stifling

Thorben Albrecht is an internationally acknowledged expert on the future of work. He was a member of the Global Commission on the Future of Work established by the ILO. As a state secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs from 2014 to 2018, he launched the ‘Work 4.0’ dialogue on shaping quality jobs in the digital age.

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